Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
For many readers, it is a mystery how individual writers can continue to come up with their many and varied storylines. Some writers believe that the stories find them.
Kayte Nunn was a magazine and book editor, then freelance feature writer and project editor, before she had her first book published in 2016. Since then, she has had a book published every year. The Silk House, 2020’s contribution, will be her third in the historical fiction genre.
The germ for this book sprang to life when she visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and her eyes alighted upon an extraordinary silk gown from the eighteenth century. Beautifully woven into the soft cream background were vivid sprays of flowers which were so vibrant they defied the several hundred years since they were first created to still demand attention. This triggered an interest in exploring the silk industry in England and the people who had such skills.
A restored silk merchant’s house and the highly regarded public school near where the author grew up in England further added to this idea. She had often wondered whether old buildings retained any of the essence of the people who had inhabited them, and their experiences even centuries later. Her own interest in the powers of medicinal and poisonous plants led her to wonder whether a fabric woven with such plants might attract attention.
During the time when the silk merchant’s house was first built, women had little status in England and, when they were singled out, it was usually for blame. The belief in witches and their meddling ways was strong a couple of centuries ago.
All the pieces began to connect together and this latest novel was born.
Kayte Nunn often foregrounds strong women in her stories and in The Silk House she has skilfully interwoven the lives of three such characters who have their own stories to tell yet are all linked to The Silk House.
Rowan Caswell is a servant girl who has been fortunate to find employment at The Silk House, a shop and home belonging to a silk merchant. Like many poor country women in the late seventeenth century, she has been taught about the uses of the plants found in the countryside. This, plus the misfortune of a facial disfiguration, leaves her fearing that she could be a target and that her fate could become the same as the four Handsel sisters who were blamed for the deaths of 132 people from smallpox just as they arrived in Wiltshire in 1737. Life is not easy for Rowan but she is a survivor.
Mary-Louise Stephenson is a gentlewoman who needs to support herself. She believes she has the skills to become a silk designer but she is a young woman trying to forge her way in a male dominated trade. Like the renowned early silk designer Anna Maria Garthwaite, her determination will eventually reap rewards.
The third protagonist is Thea Rust, an Australian history teacher who has come to England to help with the integration of a select group of girls into a very traditional boy’s college. But is this her only purpose for accepting the job? The girls are accommodated in The Silk House where she is thrust into the role of House Mistress which she takes on with much trepidation. Before long, Thea believes that the house is trying to tell her something as things happen which cannot readily be explained. Like the women from centuries ago, she also encounters sexist opposition. Not all are ready to admit girls into a traditional boys’ school. She too will overcome many obstacles.
Whereas the chapters relating to the storyline for the first two protagonists are titled with a month and date in the late 1768 and into 1769, Thea’s story chapters are labelled, ‘Now’. I wondered whether this was a clever ploy to ensure that the storyline remained relevant no matter when the book was read or whether this was meant to highlight a contrast between society then and now. What the writer did manage to highlight was that some of the gender prejudices found in the eighteenth century are still present today although they may manifest in more subtle ways.
Each protagonist becomes narrator for her own journey as she searches for fulfillment. The book alternates between their stories and the interconnections are gradually built. The author has woven an interesting and informative tale cleverly linking the past and the present while at the same time enticing the reader to expand their own knowledge about many of the issues raised.
The Silk House is a fascinating story with links to the present. Kayte Nunn has perfected the art of building the reader’s interest in some of the more unusual and personal aspects of history. I am sure most people would enjoy this storyline just as I did.
Kayte Nunn is well underway with a new novel which she hopes will be published in 2021, another historical fiction, set in Burma during World War 2 and Ireland in 1999.
I feel sure that this story will be just as interesting and enjoyable to read as her current book, The Silk House.
by Kayte Nunn
$ 32.99; 384pp