The Silk House by Kayte Nunn: Part mystery, part thriller and part historical odyssey - book review -
When an Australian history teacher arrives to take up a new post in an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside, she starts to uncover centuries-old secrets of witchcraft and persecution.
The old Silk House has a dark and disturbing past, and ghosts from its days as the home and workplace of a wealthy silk merchant are determined to make themselves heard.
Kayte Nunn, bestselling author of the acclaimed novel, The Botanist’s Daughter, returns to thrill and chill us with her new historical mystery… a gripping gothic tale which explores the murky world of silk weaving, embroidery, herbalism and witchcraft in the 18th century.
On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Nunn was inspired by an extraordinary silk gown – woven with sprays of flowers and designed by renowned silk designer Anna Maria Garthwaite – and the seeds of her haunting and heartbreaking story were sown.
When Australian teacher Thea Rust arrives at Oxleigh College, an exclusive and historic boarding school in Wiltshire, she discovers a place that reeks of tradition, privilege and money, and a staff of mainly ‘crusty old men’ resistant to change and used to controlling all aspects of life there.
After 150 years as an all-boys school, the college has its first intake of girls and Thea will be in charge of the fourteen 16-year-olds at the Silk House, a dark and shadowy building with a long and troubled past hiding more mysteries than she could ever imagine.
Wind the clock back to 1768 and we meet teenager Rowan Caswell who leaves her small village in Wiltshire to take up a post as maid-of-all-work in the home of English silk merchant Patrick Hollander and his wife Caroline.
Born with a misshapen face and white blonde hair – which some believe is the sign of a witch – Rowan is thrust into a new and dangerous world where she sees shadows flitting around her and hears spine-chilling screeches, and where her talent for herbs and healing starts to attract attention.
Meanwhile, in London, 35-year-old Mary-Louise Stephenson lives with her widowed sister amid the clatter of the weaving trade and dreams of becoming a silk designer, a job that is generally the domain of men.
The two women are down to their last few pounds when they receive an unexpected caller… wealthy silk merchant Patrick Hollander is looking for fabric designs to set his company apart and he is impressed with Mary’s work inspired by flowers and plants of the field and wayside rather than the more traditional exotic blooms.
Arriving in the market town of Oxleigh, the ambitious and gifted designer brings with her a length of fabric woven with a pattern of deadly plants which will have far-reaching consequences for all who live at the Silk House.
And over 250 years later, Thea Rust, who has never believed in magic or the supernatural, begins to wonder if this troubled house is home to not just secrets from the past… but ghosts who will not rest until their story has been told.
Using her extensive research and a richly detailed backdrop, Nunn takes us into the heart of the chequered and fascinating history of the lucrative British silk industry which produced some of the most striking botanical-patterned fabrics in the world.
Weaving seamlessly between past and present, and featuring the powerful narrative voices of three very different women, Nunn delivers an atmospheric stunner… a multi-layered and suspense-packed ghost story full of shapes, shadows, ethereal music, bumps in the night and restless spirits.
But The Silk House also comes with a compelling, contemporary feminist vibe which speaks loudly about the mistreatment of women in male-dominated worlds. The fear and suspicion that has historically surrounded ‘wise’ women who use the healing powers of herbs and plants, and the constant threat of witchcraft accusations and society’s barbarous punishments, spring to vivid life as old truths are revealed and the sense of menace grows.
The clever dual timeline allows readers to compare and contrast the challenges faced by women in both the 18th and 21st centuries whilst celebrating their inner strength, resilience and determination to follow their dreams and ambitions whatever the obstacles they may face.
Part mystery, part thriller, part historical odyssey, this is the perfect evocative and escapist read to fill the long days and nights of lockdown.
(Orion, paperback, £8.99)