THE RED ABBEY CHRONICLES by Maria Turtschaninoff is a young adult trilogy originally published in Finland. This first installment, Maresi (2014), won the Finlandia Junior Prize for children’s and young adult literature. It was translated into English by A.A. Prime.
The Red Abbey is an isolated island convent where a Mother Goddess is worshipped and a trove of secret knowledge maintained. No man is allowed to set foot on its shores. Some of its sisters were sent there because they were surplus mouths to feed, some were sent to learn skills that will make them more marriageable, and some were fleeing from abuse.
Maresi is a young novice, and while she has not yet found her calling within the Abbey, she loves it there. She feels at home among the natural beauties of the island. There’s the impressive library, too — and perhaps most importantly, at the Abbey she always has enough to eat.
Maresi begins when a new novice, Jai, arrives at the Abbey. Jai is quiet, troubled, but gradually Maresi befriends her. Roughly the first half of the book covers the development of this friendship and shows us everyday life at the Abbey. This never feels slow; the Abbey has many mysteries for the reader to explore, and we learn more about both girls’ tragic backgrounds. Maresi also begins to have spiritual experiences involving the Crone, the goddess’s death-dealing aspect, which frighten her.
In the second half, Jai’s vindictive father brings a posse of warriors to the island to drag her back home. From this point, the story is incredibly suspenseful as the sisters face off against the intruders. There are dark, unsettling themes here, but also courage and hope. And Maresi learns what she is being called to do.
Prime’s translation of Maresi is smooth. I would never have guessed this wasn’t originally written in English if I hadn’t known that going in. The descriptions of nature are particularly lovely.
I enjoyed Maresi; it’s a beautifully written coming-of-age tale in a compelling setting. I devoured it in a day, and I plan to read the next RED ABBEY book, Naondel, soon.