Kayte Nunn, The Silk House (2020)

I bought this book from the Kindle deal pages at the same time I bought The Familiars by Stacey Halls. Clearly I was onto something that evening: similar cute covers with flowers, female focus and historical fiction, with a bit of supernatural thrown into the plot. I chose both books totally perchance without knowing anything about the writers. But apart from that, both books are rather different and leave me with a different impression.

The Silk House has one of those dual timelines structure, moving back and forth between now and then, and this book doesn’t escape the common problem that one line is usually much stronger than the other. I didn’t care much for the contemporary story, centered on a young Australian woman arriving in England to teach in an exclusive boarding school that now accepts girls for the first school year. Thea will be housed together with her charges in a very old building dating back from the 18th century that has a complicated past, and as soon as she gets settled, strange things seem to happen there, related to the past. Yes, it’s spooky, but not really as tense as one would expect.

I enjoyed a lot more the other story line. In the 1770s, the point of view is split between a young maid of all works and an educated but penniless spinster who wants to be a pattern drawer for the silk weavers. Rowan the maid gets hired in a rather unconventional way by a silk merchant. Rowan has a particular gift that she doesn’t want people to know about, that of knowing plants that heal, a dangerous knowledge for women easily accused of witchcraft. And Mary Louise the painter, after many rejections by a male-dominated industry, is getting into a business deal with the same silk merchant.

I really enjoyed Rowan’s storyline, and I enjoyed learning about the silk weavers and pattern drawing (but if I hadn’t been interested, those pages would have felt particularly long as the writer gets into a lot of details that don’t really belong to the story). Mary Louise doesn’t feel very realistic to me in the way she behaves and talks, she seems anachronistic, and that’s a shame. But the main weakness is that there were probably too many stories and clues within one book, and so the last part of the story, where the writer tries to tie all the story lines together, feels rushed and disappointing.

While this one was not a complete success, I am definitely loving historical fiction these days, and that’s great because I have a few other ones lined up!

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