My first review of 2014 and delighted that it is this simply terrific book by Liz Trenow which kept me pinned to my chair all yesterday afternoon as I read it straight through. Unputdownable.
Last year I reviewed The Last Telegram by this author and my review is here. Difficult thing to write a follow up to a successful debut novel but Liz seems to have had no trouble in doing so, though I suspect it has not been as easy as it looks. The Last Telegram featured the silk trade and, as Liz's family have been involved in this for years, she had a great background in which to set a novel. This one tells the story of Maria Romano, a seamstress, taken along with her friend Nora from an orphanage, to work at Buckingham Palace. And it is here that she is called to the room of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) to make some alterations to his costume for his investiture.
"on the far side was a person preening himself in front of a long mirror dressed in what I took to be a pantomime outfit.....he had white satin knee breeches with great rosettes at each knee, with a doublet which barely came down to his thighs and a coat and a cape in purple velvet with furry trimmings..."
The work is done and then the Prince calls for her on other occasions and an affair starts. Maria is in love with him but, as we all know the character of this particular person, it is fleeting on his side and then Maria finds she is pregnant. When this is discovered she is whisked off to what she thinks is going to be a nursing home to have the baby. Instead she finds herself in an asylum where she gives birth to a baby boy and is told he has died.
The story is told in three strands. We have the first person narrative of Maria, then interviews she gave to a social worker who is doing a research study on the inmates and, finally, from the point of view of Caroline who has just split up with her boyfriend and has been made redundant. These three stories interweave and link up as the book progresses and though the reader feels this is going to happen, we do not find out how until the very end.
Central to the book is a patchwork quilt belonging to Caroline's grandmother. Maria made the quilt over the many years she was incarcerated in the asylum and she stitched her love story into its pattern. What triggers off Caroline's research is a small piece of silk used in its creation, one of the May Silks, specially woven for the wedding dress of Princess May (later Queen Mary). "“Mary’s wedding dress had a train of silver and white brocade, and was embroidered with a design of rose, shamrock, and thistle in silver". How had her grandmother came to own this quilt and what happened to its creator?
Because Liz lives in Colchester, as I do, it was a joy to identify the locations and descriptions of the places mentioned in the story which made it even more immediate. What is so horrifying about the asylum, which I have seen, is that women were put in here, not because they were mad though some were, but because their families wanted to be rid of them, perhaps because they had had an illegitimate baby or had been disgraced in some way. It is clear the author has carried out extensive research into how these patients suffered and were used for experimental drugs and trials.
I loved this book as much as the Last Telegram and if you are looking for a stonking good read then this is for you. Please note, however, that it might be best if you start it when you have time to spare as you will not want to put it down...
Available as an ebook and the paperback is to be published on 14 January. I was delighted that LIz attended the Felixstowe Book Festival last year where she gave a fascinating talk about silk and her first novel. She will be returning this June so do keep an eye out for further information which I will give on this blog.
Also, for anybody who is in the Colchester area, Liz will be doing two books signings on Saturday 18 January 2014 at Red Lion Books, High Street, Colchester, 2-4pm. and Saturday 25 January 2014 at Waterstones, High Street, Colchester, from 12 noon.
Once you have read this gorgeous book you might like to check out the instructions on how to create the quilt described in The Forgotten Seamstress. Wish I had the skills to do so but perhaps somebody out there has.
A great start to my reading year.