Book Review: Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

Blackberry & Wild RoseAbout the Book

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.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (416 pp.)    Publisher: Quercus Books
Published: 10th January 2019      Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Tricked into prostitution as an innocent newcomer to London, Sara Kemp’s rescue by Esther Thorel from the clutches of the awful Mrs. Swann offers her the possibility of gaining control over her life.  However, Sara soon finds that it seems she may have swapped one form of dependence for another, constantly at the beck and call of her new mistress.   Furthermore, the possibility that the shameful details of her previous life may be revealed is a constant fear, especially since not everyone in the Thorel household welcomes her arrival.

Esther’s desire and determination to use her artistic talent to  produce designs for silk is a search for her own form of emancipation, an escape from what she describes at one point as ‘her gilded cage’.  It also becomes an act of defiance in response to her husband Elias’s hypocrisy and deceit – ‘He was not the man I had thought he was and I no longer took his word for granted’ – and his dismissal of her role as nothing more than social status symbol, bed-mate or organiser of their household.  ‘There was no mistress of silk in this house, only a master.’

The stories of Esther and Sara are revealed to the reader in alternating points of view.  Alongside learning their stories, I also enjoyed discovering fascinating detail about the silk weaving process and its place in the Huguenot community of the time.  In an early example of the affects of globalisation, it was interesting to witness how the pressures on the industry as a result of imports from abroad and competition from cheaper material create unrest between the journeymen silk weavers and those who control the Guild system and the silk weavers’ livelihoods.

At the end of the book, Esther and Sara both find themselves facing difficult personal and moral choices that may affect others, some with tragic consequences.  Might their experiences leave both women stronger and open up the possibility of them forging different, more fulfilling paths in the future?

Blackberry and Wild Rose is an impressive, assured debut that will be a treat for fans of historical fiction that feature skilfully crafted female characters and an interesting historical setting.  I received an advance review copy courtesy of publishers, Quercus, and NetGalley.

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In three words: Well-crafted, richly textured, engaging

Try something similar…The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau or A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callaghan (follow links from titles to read my reviews)

sonia veltonAbout the Author

Sonia Velton has been a solicitor in Hong Kong, a Robert Schuman Scholar in Luxembourg and spent eight years being a full-time Mum of three in Dubai. She now lives in Kent. Her first novel, Blackberry and Wild Rose, tells the story of a fictional household of master silk weavers living in eighteenth century Spitalfields. The protagonist is loosely inspired by Anna Maria Garthwaite who was the foremost silk designer of the mid-eighteenth century and the title takes its name from an actual silk design. The novel was shortlisted as a work in progress for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015 and longlisted for the Myslexia Novel Competition. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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Blog Tour/Book Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

I’m thrilled to be kicking off the blog tour for Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield.  My grateful thanks to Doubleday and Henley Literary Festival for my (signed) proof copy of  Once Upon A River and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to participate in the blog tour and for giving me the honour of the first stop.  Do check out the tour banner at the bottom of this post so you can follow the other fabulous book bloggers taking part in the tour.

Once Upon A River is published tomorrow (4th December) in ebook format and in the US and Canada in hardback as well.  It will be published in hardback in the UK on 17th January 2019.

Once Upon A RiverAbout the Book

A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can it be explained by science?

An exquisitely crafted multi-layered mystery brimming with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (432 pp.)    Publisher: Doubleday
Published in UK: 4th December 2018 (ebook), 17th January 2019 (hardcover)
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

The dramatic moment early in the book when an injured stranger arrives at the riverside Swan inn with what seems to be the lifeless body of a child sets in motion a search for answers to many questions.  It’s a quest for the truth involving the weighing up of competing claims about the child’s identity, the resolution of previously unresolved mysteries and the seeming contradiction between scientific fact and perceived events.  More than anything, it’s a yearning for a story that makes sense.  Having witnessed the dramatic arrival, the regulars at the Swan, a place known for its storytelling, immediately begin to talk, ‘finding words to turn the night’s events into a story’.

The concept of story-telling forms a key part of the book.  The telling of stories is shown to be variously a source of entertainment, a skill, a tradition handed down through the generations, a way of making a living or impressing others.  The book explores how stories may be rooted in a geographical area or a period of history.  What also emerges from the book is that stories can be a means of trying to make sense of things but that the ownership of stories can be transitory as they travel, mutate or are embellished in the retelling.  And, who doesn’t crave to know how a story ends?

The richly drawn characters in the book embody all aspects of human nature – the good and the bad – and cleverly address the nature versus nurture debate.  My favourite character was Rita.  Independent minded and self-educated in nursing and midwifery, she has a logical, questioning approach to things using astute observation to analyse people and situations.  She proves herself to be brave, resourceful and daunted only by very particular fears about one aspect of life.

The river, described at one point as ‘majestic, powerful, unknowable’, plays a central role in the book – almost becoming a character in its own right.  I particularly loved the chapter ‘Tributaries’ in which the author cleverly uses the river as a model for introducing other characters into the story.

The river is frequently a source of metaphor too.  For example, at one point a character finds himself hemmed in by a crowd of people – a ‘throng thickened to stagnation’ – until he eventually finds space and ‘a sluggish current’ that allows him to progress.  A group of drinkers at the Swan, trying to make sense of events find their thoughts have ‘eddied round, discovered currents within currents, met counter currents.’  Another character, facing a moral dilemma, finds himself ‘no more able to direct the current of his life than a piece of debris can control the stream that carries it.’

The river is not the only elemental force in the book.  The changing seasons, particularly the points of the year marked by the solstices and equinoxes, are the backdrop to pivotal moments in the book.  Although set in the age of scientific discovery – Darwin’s theory of evolution, the dawn of the study of psychology and the human mind – the characters in the book come across things that seemingly can’t be explained by logic, facts or reason.  Some choose to fall back on the supernatural and stories older than the one they are currently living through.   At times, characters experience presentiments about future events which, as well as tapping into the supernatural aspect of the book, also create narrative tension.

In the breathless final chapters, a positive torrent of secrets is unleashed, the true nature of things becomes evident and natural instincts are proved correct.  At the end, everything feels perfectly in balance with the rhythms of life from birth to death.  Like the ebb and flow of the tide, if you like.  (Sorry, these water metaphors are catching.)

I was lucky enough to hear Diane Setterfield talk about Once Upon A River at this year’s Henley Literary Festival, as it happens whilst sailing up the River Thames that is such an important part of the story.  (You can read my write-up of the event here.)  Hearing her talk about the book gave me additional insight into the themes it explores and resulted in a few ‘Ah, yes’ moments of recognition while I was reading it.

I think you can probably tell that I absolutely loved this book.  To borrow a watery metaphor from the author, I was swept away by the story and the skill with which it was told.   I closed Once Upon A River with a sigh of satisfaction, if I’m honest a little teary-eyed, and certain in the knowledge this will be one of my favourite books of the year.  Right now, it’s definitely challenging for the top spot.

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In three words: Magical, atmospheric, suspenseful

Try something similar…The Good People by Hannah Kent (read my review here)

Diane Setterfield Author PictureAbout the Author

Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale, was published in 38 countries, sold more than three million copies, and was made into a television drama scripted by Christopher Hampton, starring Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave. Her second novel was Bellman & Black, and her new novel is Once Upon a River. Born in rural Berkshire, she now lives near Oxford, by the Thames.

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FINAL Once Upon A River BT Poster