I always think that a good historical novel leaves you wanting to find out more and that is exactly what this debut novel of Sonia Velton has done. Ignorant of the presence of Hugenot weavers in Spitalfields I am now desirous, at the very least, of seeing Anna Maria Garthwaite’s designs in the V&A. Part of that motivation is due to the historical research carried out by the author which is detailed and convincing.
But of course the history is just one part of the tale woven here (sorry for the pun!). A story of betrayal, love, creativity, none of them unfamiliar themes but always interesting to see how one debut novelist deals with them, against the backdrop of eighteenth century silk weaving and the ensuing weavers' riots that developed because of imports of French silk and calico.
But the novel begins innocently enough with the ubiquitous young girl arriving from the country to the city in search of something better or at least different. Sara Kemp is our country bumpkin who doesn’t find the streets of London paved with gold and whose plans, or to be more precise her mother’s plans, go astray from the word go.
Enter Esther, wife of Elias a dour weaver, who after a chance meeting with Sara decides to intervene and help the girl towards a more respectable life. It is the story of these women that is the warp and weft (oops, I’ve done it again!) of the novel. Indeed the book employs the dual narrative technique alternating between the two women. Not a new device but it’s done well here as the reader is offered two differing perspectives of the same events by women of differing backgrounds, and intellects to a degree. This is evidence of careful and thorough plotting and gives the story its cohesion. We see all the characters develop through these women’s interpretation of events but it is Esther and Sara that dominate. The interaction between the two, the range of emotion that seems both nurturing one moment and volatile the next is a compelling aspect of the story.
The key male characters are the weavers and we learn much of the lives of master weavers and journeymen and the tensions that developed during this period in history. They are a contrast to the women and although the male relationships are not as well defined as the two women there is a balance struck that serves to illustrate some of society’s and the class conventions of the time.
There is a protracted and very credible courtroom sequence that I found very visual and quite tense.
The temptation to sugar coat the conclusion was avoided to a degree but there was no pervading sense of sadness as the novel took an almost cyclical turn at the end with a positive redemption of sorts.
As for the title? Hmm. I don’t want to say much about it because I don’t do spoilers but it relates to a silk design. And I’ll leave it there. If you’re intrigued, well, then, you’ll be well advised to let this loom (Oh no! how does this keep happening?) large on your book radar.
In conclusion, it’s a most enjoyable read, a rich tapestry (I’m saying nothing) and a book that I think a seasoned novelist would be proud of, a most promising debut. I have to thank Quercus books for a proof copy and…….. Sonia Velton, herself, for signing it for me!!