I had a hankering to read Sonia Velton’s debut novel Blackberry & Wild Rose for its stunning cover alone before I knew anything more about the story. But what a world I found wrapped up in that oh so very beautiful dust jacket.
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.
Blackberry & Wild Rose is a remarkably rich and immersive novel and, in writing it, Sonia Velton has created the kind of world I long to lose myself in as a reader. From the moment Sara steps off the cart that’s brought her to London and Mrs Swann scoops her up and bundles her along to the Wig & Feathers, I was plunged into eighteenth century Spitalfields. Sonia Velton fills her pages with the sights, sounds and smells of the area in this period so well that I felt as if I were living the story alongside her characters.
Told from the perspective of Sara and her ‘saviour’ Esther, this is the story of two very different women both constrained by the limited opportunities available to them and how vulnerable they are by dint of their sex. I took a more immediate liking to Sara but I think that was in part down to how soon her fresh start in the city turns sour and that she’s viewed as a project, rather than another woman in the household, by Esther. It takes longer to discover Esther’s heart’s desire and realise the consequences of her thwarted dreams and wasted talents, and the frustration and resentment these engender. But once they became known, I couldn’t help but feel for her and want her to find some comfort and happiness.
It was fascinating to learn something about the Huguenots, their customs and beliefs, and the society they formed in this area of London, together with their trade as silk weavers. It’s not something I knew very much about and the novel made me curious to find out more. It was interesting, if unsurprising, to see how the Huguenots closed ranks, much like any society under threat, and how those considered outsiders fared as a result. The contrast between the lives of the master weavers and the journeymen was stark and the friction between these two factions as taut and liable to snap as the silk threads on their looms.
It was brutal how hopes and dreams, kindness, love and good intentions are all trampled underfoot along the way but the book ultimately ends on a more hopeful note. I had the sense that there had been some shift in this world to make more room for these resilient women in it.
Blackberry & Wild Rose is as beautifully intricate a story as the pattern on its covers would suggest.
Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton is published by Quercus and is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can buy it from Amazon UK or from Hive which supports your local independent bookshop. Sonia Velton qualified as a solicitor, specialising in discrimination law. Blackberry & Wild Rose is her first novel and it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize and long-listed for the Mslexia novel competition. You can follow the author on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley.
I have one copy of Blackberry & Wild Rose to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner at the weekend!