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 strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.
It was the cover which first drew me to this book; bold and eye-catching, much like Esther Thorel’s silk designs which are described in the novel. This is an intriguing debut, set in mid-eighteenth century Spitalfields, and centred on the lives of two women who, for all their many differences, are set to see their fates intertwine. The context of the story really grabbed my attention, and Velton paints a vivid picture of life in the Huguenot weaving community and particularly the strife between masters and journeymen, which was inspired by real events. I like stories which teach me something, and there was definitely much to be learned here.
Velton’s characters are well-drawn, although I have to say that I found many of them unlikable, including, at times, the two female protagonists. However, as a reader who appreciates a story about flawed characters, this was not a negative for me, even if I did wince at some of the things they said and did, particularly to and regarding each other. The interesting aspect of this was that despite my misgivings about Sara and Esther, I found myself cheering them on. Neither woman was inherently bad, she was just fallible – as, indeed, we all are. Written as a first person narrative, the story used chapter breaks to alternate between each woman’s point of view; a structural choice which was as neat as it was compelling, allowing the reader to really draw close to what each woman felt as events unfolded.
In summary, this was a well-written debut, superbly grounded in the unforgiving context of mid-Georgian London. Five stars.