Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The Lost Jewels by Kirsty Manning is a work of fiction woven around the mysterious Cheapside Hoard dug up in 1912. This was a cache of jewels from the late 16th and early 17th centuries unearthed by workmen using pickaxes when excavating a cellar in London. It is said to have been the most important collection of Elizabethan jewellery ever discovered.
According to the curator of the exhibition of this amazing collection, Hazel Forsyth, what makes it so intriguing is that nobody knows who buried it, when and why it was buried, and the inspiration for the creation of the individual pieces in the first place.
Kirsty Manning has set about thoroughly researching this discovery (as the List of Further Reading at the back of the book suggests and her writing reveals) and turning her findings into a novel which becomes ‘a thrilling treasure hunt across centuries’ (book cover).
The reader is taken on a journey from 1630 and the Golconda diamond mine in India to Bandar Abbas, Persia in 1631, then back to London, where raw gem materials come from all over the world to be fashioned by skilled workmen for individual purposes. In the prologue, the reader is immediately transported to the hustle and bustle of people trying to flee the ever-engulfing Great Fire in London while a young woman pushes against this flow of humanity to try to save her father’s treasure.
The important aspects of this story are not revealed in chronological order but rather each snippet of information has to be set aside like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle until all that is needed to complete the puzzle is ready to be placed into its correct position.
To bind all this information together, the author has given the reader a story in the present, about Dr Kate Kirby, who lives in Boston, but travels around the world researching the provenance of important items for mostly private collectors. Kate has been invited to London where her search will begin on several of the Cheapside pieces of jewellery. She will be accompanied in this endeavour by the well-renowned energetic photographer, Marcus Holt, whose work has been displayed from Vogue to National Geographic.
Adding spice to this particular project is the fact that Kate’s great-grandmother, Essie, had often told stories to Kate and her sister about ‘buckets and chests of jewels (that) were pulled from a pile of rubble … Nobody was allowed to touch the jewels. But there was a man, with eyes as green as emeralds. He cast a spell on me’ (302). Kate had known that Essie had once lived in London but, in all the years she had resided in America, she had not once returned there, even for the funeral of her only living sister. Essie had told Kate that she had made a terrible mistake but she had died before she could elaborate more. Both Kate and her cousin Bella are in possession of jewellery of significance yet they do not know its history. Maybe now Kate is in a position to rectify this.
The authors detailed descriptions transport the reader to the dangerous workplaces of the exploited workers, and the early days of English society with the great divide between the rich and poor. Although this is a book of fiction, the author has inserted cameos of people who really did exist – specifically George Fabian Lawrence (Stony Jack), the dealer with an eye for precious stones regardless of their source, and Gerhard Polman, a Dutch merchant who was to lose his life as well as the precious jewels he owned. Both of these characters add depth to this intriguing story.
Kirsty Manning has created a plausible history for the Cheapside Hoard, but this is not just a story about the jewels. It is also a story of human endurance and how two young women were prepared to take risks to free themselves from poverty and class for a more fulfilling future life. These women became strong role models for the generations who followed. It was Essie who’d told the girls not to be dazzled by the sparkle, that, when choosing a life partner, gestures were far more important than gemstones, and kindness and hope. She had shown Kate how to carry a heart full of sorrow and joy so she could look forward to the future.
This is a story about the desire to be loved, to connect and to be remembered, carried along with jewels and gemstones as they were set and reset; forgotten and rediscovered. The history of a jewel really has no end.
I thoroughly enjoyed Australian writer, Kirsty Manning’s, The Lost Jewels. She is also the author of the enchanting The Midsummer Garden published in 2017 and the bestselling The Jade Lily which was published in 2018. Her novels are also published in the US and in Europe.
Allen & Unwin