Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley

Margaret of Ashbury wants to write her life story. However, like most women in fourteenth-century England, she is illiterate. Three clerics contemptuously decline to be Margaret’s scribe, and only the threat of starvation persuades Brother Gregory, a Carthusian friar with a mysterious past, to take on the task. As she narrates her life, we discover a woman of startling resourcefulness. Married off at the age of fourteen to a merchant reputed to be the Devil himself, Margaret was left for dead during the Black Plague. Incredibly, she survived, was apprenticed to an herbalist, and became a midwife. But most astonishing of all, Margaret has experienced a Mystic Union—a Vision of Light that endows her with the miraculous gift of healing. Because of this ability, Margaret has become suddenly different—to her tradition-bound parents, to the bishop’s court that tries her for heresy, and ultimately to the man who falls in love with her.

Although I've found some pretty strong women in the medieval stories I read this is the first time where one convinces a man to use his time and skills to tell a woman's story. Just that premise alone intrigued me and kept me glued to the pages.

The story we are told is Margaret of Ashbury's tale. She is married to a wealthy London merchant and a voice as told her to write her story. Since she can't write she has to find someone who will and her husband indulges her every desire.

She finds a destitute monk, Brother Gregory, who is willing to do it for coin and so starts the narration of her life story since she was a little girl. I did love the detail put in describing a woman's everyday life and the daily worries and thoughts that sometimes were so different from men's.

Margaret has a colourful life. She was married young to a beastly man who treated her badly, was abandoned on the side of the road after catching the black plague, learns a trade, joins a band of actors and moves to London where she leads a successful life as a midwife, is eventually accused of witchcraft but ends up being saved and marries her current husband.

While she tells all this to Brother Gregory they get to know each other and develop a relationship of sorts. She knows how cranky and easily provoked he can be and he eventually starts respecting her. The story deals with some serious aspects of the time but the author manages to include some humourous tidbits which make it a lighter reading than it otherwise would be.

I guess my only complaint is the supernatural aspects of the story. I can't help but being sceptic of such events and while they didn't bother me too much here on principle I would prefer not to have Margaret talking to God and having healing powers.

Grade: 4.5/5


  1. This is one of hers that I haven't read yet. I didn't know Margaret talks to God and am not sure how I will react to that myself. I will try to approach it with an open mind, I don't remember the supernatural touches bothering me or her characters speaking with God in the Judith Merkle Riley books I have read. I read them years ago, so that may have softened or erased some of my original reactions. I do remember one scene not sitting right with me but I enjoyed the writing and story so much that this one scene did not effect my overall experience, which may have been similar to your experience. Her books are different and unique from most HF so I look forward to this one.

    Ana, I have to say I am loving your book selections and reviews.


  2. This sounds wonderful! The aspect of Margaret dictating her story, but at the same time letting the reader in on a medieval woman's life at the times is intriguing! Of course I can understand your reservations about the supernatural aspects of the story. I would think that there would have been a better way to get to Margaret needing to write her story.

    Thanks for a wonderful review!

  3. Wow, the point of view the story is told in sounds so interesting. Thanks for this review!

  4. To me, the whole talking to god angle was humourous and a bit tongue-in-cheek. Side note: I have this book with the same old school cover. :)