Review by Helen Skinner, 26 November 2019
It’s 1768 and Sara Kemp has just arrived in Spitalfields, the London parish which has become home to a thriving community of Huguenot silk weavers. Sara is full of hope and optimism, ready to start a new life, but before she’s had time to get her bearings she finds herself the victim of a cruel trick which leaves her with no choice other than to live and work in a notorious brothel.
In a much more respectable house nearby lives the master weaver Elias Thorel and his wife Esther. Their marriage is not a loving or happy one, but Esther has been trying to take an interest in her husband’s work and has discovered an aptitude for designing floral patterns. There’s nothing she wants more than to see one of her own designs woven in silk, but Elias is scornful and refuses to acknowledge her talent. Still determined to turn her dreams into reality, Esther approaches the journeyman weaver who has been using the loom in the Thorels’ attic to weave his master piece.
Two women leading very different lives – but their paths cross when Esther is distributing Bibles in the poorer areas of Spitalfields and sees Sara being abused by her madam outside the brothel. Soon Sara is working as a lady’s maid in Esther’s household, but how will she repay Esther for her act of kindness?
I was drawn to Blackberry and Wild Rose by the beautiful cover – and the mention of an 18th century setting and the comparisons to Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier made me want to read it even more. Of course, none of those things guaranteed that I would like the book, but I’m pleased to say that I did!
First of all, there are the fascinating details of weaving, of using looms, designing patterns, and everything else involved in creating beautiful figured silk. At the beginning of the novel, Esther knows very little of any of this – she only knows that she wants to see her designs brought to life – but she learns a lot from the weaver she befriends, and her enthusiasm (and, I think, the author’s) comes through very strongly:
By the time the candle had burned down to a waxy stump, the thinnest sliver of iridescent silk clung to the heddles. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I breathed. I was finally looking at the very beginning of a silk made to a pattern I had designed. My own creation. ‘How long will it take to finish it?’
I could feel Esther’s excitement and pride as her silk took shape, as well as her disappointment and anger at her husband’s lack of support. Through the stories of Esther’s weaver friend Bisby Lambert and some of the other Spitalfields weavers, we also learn about some of the issues and challenges the industry faced and how the workers had to fight for their rights against unscrupulous masters and the threat of cheap imports from abroad.
An even more engaging aspect of the book is the relationship between the two main characters, Esther and Sara, whose narratives alternate throughout the novel. At first, Esther feels sorry for Sara, as she would for any woman driven to prostitution, and she wants to do what she can to help. Once Sara is there, in the Thorel household, however, their relationship is an uneasy one and Esther begins to wonder whether she has done the right thing in bringing Sara into her home:
She was like a cat sidling in uninvited and looking about. You don’t want to turn it out straight away so you offer it a scrap of food. The next thing you know it’s curled up on your favourite chair, watching you with unblinking elliptic eyes.
As for Sara, she quickly becomes aware that Esther’s life is not as perfect as it seems and that she is hiding some secrets of her own. While a friendship does form between the two women, they are not entirely comfortable around each other and neither is quite sure whether the other can be trusted, which makes for a tense and exciting story! The plot kept me gripped throughout the book and although I thought I could predict how it would end, I was wrong and the ending was actually much more realistic than I’d expected. This is an impressive debut novel and I hope to read more from Sonia Velton in the future.
Helen blogs at She Reads Novels, where a version of this review first appeared.
Sonia Velton, Blackberry & Wild Rose (Quercus, 2019). 978-1787470798, 416 pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).