Simon and Schuster 2018
This is a debut novel for Sydney writer Lauren Chater, a story set in Estonia mostly between 1939 and 1941, that exposes the dire human consequences of WWII and successive occupations by the Russians, the German Nazis and the Soviets.
It is also about the importance of cultural identity and the objects and practices that allow a people to hold onto this despite awful events unfolding around them.
The Lace Weaver story is held by the women of Haapsalu, who pass the tradition of lace shawl making from generation to generation, the meaning of each pattern and stitch. This is far more than an artisanal practice – as the author so deftly puts it in the frontispiece: ‘Sometimes a shawl is not just a shawl.’
This period and theatre in the history of the second world war is not much written about in fiction, neither perhaps in historical records. Aspects of war like suspicion and betrayal are touched upon, questions of flight and resistance.
Our heroines are Katarina, the young Estonian woman and Lydia the young Russian woman whose separate stories are told and then woven together, partly through the shawls themselves but also through the teaching of lace weaving. The male presence is strong in the Forest Brothers, in family and loved ones, notably Jakob and Oskar, but also negatively in portrayals of power and lust, but it is the strength and resilience of women that shines most brightly in this story.
In The Lace Weaver, Lauren Chater demonstrates that an awful story can be beautifully told. The book is thoroughly researched through both readings and oral histories and adds richly to our store of knowledge of the period and the people of Estonia. The delicate seam that holds us to family and to happiness is also sensitively explored – not all good people have good parents as Lydia comes to accept, and joy can quickly turn to despair:
‘A warm breeze shook the boughs of the linden trees dotting the pavement and sent a shower of white blooms raining down on the heads of the crowds below. Some of the children tried to catch the whirling blossoms in their hands, voices shriil with delight.’(p.308) – this as the Nazis marched into Tartu to ‘ liberate’ the Estonians. So quickly this liberation gives way to another captivity, possibly even worse than that by the Russians. And how cleverly Lauren Chater reels us into the presence of each character and each action.