Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Review: The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

What it is about:
The Tenth Gift is about two women separated by 400 years in history who are both passionate about embroidery. The lives of Julia Lovatt and Catherine Anne Tregenna, otherwise known as Cat, intersect through a book of exquisite seventeenth-century embroidery patterns. Julia receives this rare book as a gift when her lover ends their affair. In the margins of the book are Cat's diary entries which describe the capture of an entire Cornwall church parish by Muslim pirates who embark on a voyage to Morocco to auction them off as slaves. Julia becomes enchanted with Cat's story, embarks on a voyage to authenticate it and is pursued by her ex, who wants the book back.

Why I Chose this book:
I was drawn to this book because of the reference to embroidery. What caught me by surprise was an aspect of England's history that I had not read about before - the Barbary corsair raids on the south coasts of England which involved violent theft of cargoes and crews and the sale of captives into slavery. I generally avoid books that include violence or brutality but I could not stop reading. I had to find out whether Cat survived and how her book of embroidery patterns made its way back home to England.

Favourite Passage:
"She had gone to sleep pondering the altar cloth, its theme, its design, the materials she would use, and a strange alchemy appeared to have taken place during the night, drawing desire and inspiration together into visual form. The vision shimmered in her head, but could she capture that form and set it down before it escaped her! Her whole future might depend on her ability to do so, and the thought of that set her hand to trembling.
She took a deep breath, firmed her resolve, and swept the writing stick in a light, curving line from top to bottom of the page. The first mark on the virgin surface broke the spell, and suddenly she was free. The outline of the tree's trunk was quickly achieved, her hand moving swiftly and decisively, marking in a branch here and there, twinning in graceful counterpoint to one another; a flourish of leaves, a spray of berries, buds, flowers. The design unfurled itself like a young bracken front -- elegant, curvilinear, iconic -- its symmetries both powerful and reassuring. From a base of twisted roots out of which peered tiny creatures -- a hare, a frog, a nail -- the Tree of Knowledge stretched heavenward. Adam stood on one side, Eve on the other; the apple hung above them. In the branches above Eve's head, the serpent writhed and smiled." (page 39)

Who will Like this book:
This book will appeal to historical fiction fans, especially those interested in learning about the Sallee Rovers' raids on England in 1625. And of course, anyone who embroiders will be drawn into the tale too. However, there is a degree of violence and brutality in this book which might repel some. I wondered several times why I was reading a book involving adultery, suicide, and violence but the book's fast pace and compelling story kept my eyes glued to its pages.

Title: The Tenth Gift
Author: Jane Johnson
Publisher: Random House 2008, Anchor Canada 2009
Category: Historical Fiction
Number of Pages: 385 (392 including reading guide)
Price: Canada $19.95 Paperback