Weaving. Healing. Haunting. The spellbinding story of a mysterious boarding school sheltering a centuries-old secret…
Australian history teacher Thea Rust arrives at an exclusive boarding school in the British countryside only to find that she is to look after the first intake of girls in its 150-year history. She is to stay with them in Silk House, a building with a long and troubled past.
In the late 1700s, Rowan Caswell leaves her village to work in the home of an English silk merchant. She is thrust into a new and dangerous world where her talent for herbs and healing soon attracts attention.
In London, Mary-Louise Stephenson lives amid the clatter of the weaving trade and dreams of becoming a silk designer, a job that is the domain of men. A length of fabric she weaves with a pattern of deadly flowers will have far-reaching consequences for all who dwell in the silk house.
Kayte Nunn’s The Silk House is scrumptious historical fiction set against the backdrop of the eighteenth-century silk trade. Switching between POVs, we meet three women whose lives intersect with the mysterious Silk House in very different ways.
In the present, Australian teacher Thea takes up residence in the house to manage the first intake of female students for a nearby boarding school.
In the late 18th century, Rowan Caswell is a maid in the silk house. She’s got a talent for brewing herbal concoctions that soon earn her a reputation. Mary-Louise Stephenson is an artist and designer who is struggling to build a career as a silk designer. She’s working in a man’s industry and no one will take her seriously.
“Rowan rubbed her eyes and blinked in the dim light of Prudence’s taper. There was no sign of Alice; indeed, the other side of the bed appeared as if it had not been slept in, the sheets pulled tight and the thin pillow smooth, but Rowan thought she had felt someone next to her when she rolled over in the night.”
Setting is one of the biggest strengths in this novel — the silk house is eerie and mysterious, alive and haunting. Secrets are buried within the walls and slowly, page by page, we come to understand the dangers and hidden mysteries embedded in its history.
The Silk House is rich with evocative imagery and compelling characters. Moments of supernatural and witchcraft pepper the story, enough to intrigue the reader but not too much that it feels too divergent from the genre we’re reading.
“It was all Thea could do not to gasp aloud as she pulled open the door to the library and stepped inside. The building was cavernous, with high ceilings and shadowed shelves that seemed like they might make excellent hiding places. Wall-to-wall books, some leather-bound, their spines cracked and worn, looked as old as the school itself.”
Kayte builds tension incredibly well, but she also implements a strong sense of foreboding with each passing chapter. Readers will sense the unease in all of the women’s lives, and each chapter builds to a really surprising climax.
Feminism and the female experience are explored throughout the book. Each of the main characters are female, and they’re all strong and determined in their own right. They’re working to succeed in a world dominated by men.
Thea wants to prove herself and is passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the Silk House. Rowan is incredibly skilled at brewing medicinal drinks and pills, and she is also incredibly savvy and intelligent. Mary-Louise is set up to fail, but pursues her love of designing and forges a career on her own.
“Mary tucked her sheaf of drawings, embroidery samples and dot patterns under her arm and prepared to knock on the door of every master weaver on Spital Square, Old Artillery Ground and beyond. Few would admit her. Some drew their shutters at her approach, as if they had been forewarned of her purpose.”
Admittedly, Mary-Louise’s story didn’t feel as dominant in the novel. She’s an integral part of the story, and her actions have lasting effects on the others in the house, but she doesn’t get as much real estate in the book as the other two women and so Mary ends up feeling a little lost in the pages. Truthfully, sometimes I completely forget about her until her POV turned up again.
Gothic mystery at its best, The Silk House is recommended for fans of literary fiction and historical fiction.
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Silk House
Hachette Book Publishers