Hachette, Australia, 2020
This is Kayte Nunn’s third historical novel, an intriguing tale set in the present and in the second half of the 18th century. I found it to be one of those books one is impelled to read on and on into the wee small hours, reluctant to leave before each small resolution and then the final revelation in the last few pages.
The contemporary world of Australian history teacher Thea Rust, who travels to Oxleigh in England to take up the post of history teacher in an exclusive boarding school, which till then has housed only boys, butts against the dark past of the silk merchant’s house which gives the book its name.
This book is very much about power and privilege, mostly determined by wealth but also by gender. A great strength is seen in the circles of women – the herbalists accused (and tried in darker times) of witchcraft for holding a largely female knowledge, the women fabric designers and weavers unwelcome in a male trade, the servants who were subject to abuse by both men and women because of their relative powerlessness in households of the wealthy, the clerics who finally were accepted in very recent times into another male province, the church, bringing with them to institutional religion a sensitivity and respect for the mystical.
Rowan, the young girl who is taken into service in the home of Patrick Hollander, the silk merchant, is the dominant carrier of the 18th century tale. She is at once eminently practical and quick witted and steeped in the mysticism that surrounds the chemistry of herbalism.
At every moment of need, she shows strength well beyond her years. Mary-Louise Stephenson is a similarly admirable woman, possessed of unique talents in fabric design and a gutsy willingness to take on the powerful to achieve her artistic goals and to overcome the realities of impending poverty. The mysticism and seemingly magical properties of medicinal plants ties the stories of these two women together.
And in her own way, Thea also carries the torch of feminism, merely quietly wanting the girls in her care to be respected and treated as equals when they are enrolled as the first cohort of female students. As much as possible she holds her ground without risking her employment. With equal determination and despite a slew of strange and troubling experiences, she delves into the secrets of the Silk House, pursuing its secrets to the end.
Equally forcefully drawn are the circles of men – the craftsmen and guildsmen who guarded their monopolies, the power brokers of commerce and heads of households, the masters of the cock fights; in the modern day story, the headmaster and his male staff struggling against the tide of change.
Thea’s father also wields power from beyond the grave. He was a distinguished old boy of Oxleigh and it is Thea’s search for peace with his ‘ghost’, her desire to make him proud, that motivates her to take up the history teaching position after his death.
On one level, this is a ripping yarn and the reader enjoys it as such – the gothic world of spirits and ghosts is indicated in the opening quotation: ‘Love, thieves and fear make ghosts.’ However, to define it thus would be a disservice to the historical research which the author shares with us and the strikingly graphic worlds she has painted, both past and present.
Kayte Nunn’s capacity to build character, layer plot and hold the reader to the last is apparent throughout The Silk House, and the story’s slightly disturbing implications remain with us even in the bright light that plays on the rushing water of the millrace when we leave Thea to find reasons to stay on at Oxleigh.
Thank you to Hachette for sending me a review copy of The Silk House.