I got interested in Maresi -written by Maria Turtschaninoff – as soon as I saw the cover and read that the author was from Finland. As you might know by now, I like my stories weird and I recently read that Finland has a thriving community of writers who love to spin these type of stories. And I’m very happy that my brain might have made a weird leap there, because Maresi was so worth it.
Maresi doesn’t seem very weird on the surface. We are slowly introduced to Maresi and the all-female island she lives on. She’s writing her story down because of something that happened – the first hint at strangeness – but elects to start at the beginning. This means telling us about the place of women in the world and how they often aren’t allowed to do or learn what they want. Throughout the first half of the book Turtschaninoff throws in details that flesh out the world, like having Maresi tell the story of how the Sisters settled on the island and founded the Red Abbey and how many of the young girls who have come there since had to flee from either poverty, war or violence.
These are problems women and girls in our world deal with as well, and even though we don’t have an island that functions as a safe haven for women, the book is still firmly set in reality. Then Turtschaninoff delves deeper into the mythology of The Mother and uses magic and mysticism to write about womanhood.
The whole island worships The Mother, which means all aspects of the woman: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. It tells us how all women have all three of these aspects in them and how these are powerful in their own way. Many have called Maresi a feminist book and although I definitely feel that this book is showing that women are equal to men and should be treated as such, just calling it feminist would do the book short. To me, a very important part of the book centered around sisterhood, on being there for the women and girls around you and about creating a safe environment in which they can explore who they are. This is clear in the friendship between Maresi and Jai, but also the protectiveness of the Sisterhood for girls and woman in need and the fierce attitude all the girls have when push comes to shove and they need to protect the youngest ones from danger.
And there’s definitely danger in the book. A group of evil men make their way to the island, threatening the good life the Red Abbey promises. The girls stand together against these men, facing their violence and using their own power to save others and to defeat them. The book is filled with folklore and myth about womanhood and the scariest among this is The Crone. She means death in a scary and very violent way no man or woman can stand against. Turtschaninoff doesn’t shy away from portraying things that actually scare us, showing the threat of sexual violence, child slavery and being buried alive.
This book is definitely not going to be for everyone. The narrative starts out very slowly, the first half of the book just being an introduction to Maresi, the Red Abbey and all the other women. When you get near the 50% mark though, the book suddenly lurches into action and doesn’t stop until the final pages. It’s marketed towards young adults and I can see many of them giving up a quarter of the way in because not a lot happens. There are no wild love stories, no cute boys and no plucky heroine making sassy remarks. Sure, Maresi herself is a little bit of an outlier, but not the type of girl we usually meet in typical YA novels. But because this book was anything but typical YA, it felt like a breath of fresh air for me. I was getting a little tired of all these girls worshiping romantic love and really enjoyed reading a novel aimed at a younger audience that shows the strengths of who you are, not who you love.
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher Pushkin Press.