WHEN ESTHER THOREL, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.
INSIDE THE THORELS’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.
IT IS SILK that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.
THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.
Two women, Sara and Esther, are the narrators in Blackberry and Wild Rose, a historical novel situated in the year 1768. This shared responsibility for telling the story in alternating chapters is exactly what makes it such a fascinating novel.
While they are both subservient women, they hold very different positions in life. Sara becomes a servant in the Thorel household and Esther Thorel is the wife – literally ‘only’ the wife – to a very prominent silk weaver. The women are tied with their hands and feet to their social roles and I followed them while trying to fulfill their hopes and dreams. Sadly, there’s hardly a connection between them despite their similarities, it does not spark any sympathy for the other woman and if anything, they stand firm and tall in their own corner. Is there anything that can ever bring them closer together?
Even though Sara is obviously the underdog and is to be pitied, I sympathised significantly more with Esther and never really warmed to Sara throughout the story. It’s difficult to understand why she wasn’t grateful (any job would seem better to me than working in a brothel and Esther did save her from a lifelong debt) and I can’t attribute a lot of positive traits to her character. My heart did go out to her a few times towards the end though when I finally saw the deep feelings she was in fact able to develop for someone even though it might hurt her in the end.
But overall I found more enjoyment reading about Esther’s encounters with Bisby Lambert, a journeyman silk weaver who is allowed to use the spare loom in the Thorel attic to weave his own masterpiece. I hardly knew anything about silk weaving so a whole new world opened up to me and it was fascinating and educational to read about the looms and the process of weaving silks. There was also a beautiful chemistry between them that rejoiced me enormously.
Jealousy, secrecy, desires, and then… oh lord, a betrayal so deep you might not recover. It all leads the story towards that one point where they’ll have to make a certain choice, one ultimate moment of deciding whether to give support to the other woman or turn their back in the other one’s hour of need and even worse, be the one responsible for casualties. I was very dubious they would make the correct moral decision. The situation took a turn for the worse and I crossed all my fingers this would have a happy ending. In a way it did but also it very much didn’t, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
Blackberry and Wild Rose was brilliantly atmospheric and a thoroughly enjoyable debut. She’s going to make me a true historical novel buff if she keeps this up, you’ll see.
I received a free paperback copy of the novel from the publisher, Quercus Books. This is my honest opinion.