July 26, 2009

The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

The Tenth Gift is a wonderful and absorbing story about two complex women: Catherine Anne Tregenna (Cat) in 17th Century Cornwall, and Julia Lovat in 21st Century London. Like Cat, Julia has a talent for embroidery and at the dissolution of her long adulterous relationship with her friend’s husband Michael, she is given a book of embroidery patterns. Michael had meant to give her another similar book but mistakenly gives her the more valuable and unique palimpsest, as written overtop of the embroidery patterns and in the margins is Cat’s account of her capture by Turkish pirates. As Julia reads Cat’s story she comes to realize their lives have a strange parallel. Who is Catherine Anne Tregenna and why does Julia feel such a close bond to her? Both Cat and Julia are women of impetuosity, temper and singular naivety, given to taking bold and somewhat blind risks. They are both talented with embroidery, believe in love and are seeking to find meaning in their existence, yet they also have faults of emotional weakness and vanity. I did not like Julia at all at first and was convinced my opinion would not change. She was bitchy, emotional, weak and needy and never thought about what she was saying, insulting others whether deliberate or not. Although I have to admit she became a more likable character when the story took her to Morocco…without giving too much away…she let Morocco cleanse her of mistakes in the past.
The Tenth Gift is an excellent work of fiction and though there are romantic tensions and intimacy there is no “romance”. There is a unique, realistic and fresh feeling to the story. I don’t think I have read another novel similar to this one. Johnson also includes quotes, poems, and letters that enhance the storyline. Each chapter is a cliff hanger and I felt equally invested in the fates of both characters, although there was no pattern to the switching from historical time to modern day. Tension ratchets up more and more every time the story flipped back and forth. So much so that I became frustrated that I could not continue to read one or the other of the storylines, but frustrated in a good way as it really made The Tenth Gift an exciting read. I enjoyed and appreciated both storylines as each was so absorbing.

There were a few other aspects of The Tenth Gift that interested me. The book expands upon the ideas of mosaic, pattern, and tapestry in culture, as well as rebirth and the influence of supernatural forces. Johnson describes the process of Cat and the captured people of Penzance being sold into slavery, how they looked at the time and how they were sized up, poked at, and forced to remove all their clothing. The pictures she created were quite brutal but mostly glossed over. I learned about places and times that I had never before read or known about: the history and culture of Cornwall and Morocco and the religious, political and economic tensions of the time. I thought the book could have benefited from including pictures or stencils of the stylized designs and embroidery described within. Toward the end of the story we learn that “The Tenth Gift” is a song/poem about how God divided beauty into ten, where the tenth item is a book. I love it when authors go to the effort to include maps, chapter prefaces or quotes, and suggestions for further reading material. I highly recommend this story to everyone.
In an expensive London restaurant Julia Lovat receives a gift that will change her life. It appears to be a book of exquisite 17th-century embroidery patterns but on closer examination Julia finds it also contains faint diary entries. In these, Cat Tregenna, an embroideress, tells how she and others were stolen out of a Cornish church in 1625 by Muslim pirates and taken on a brutal voyage to Morocco to be auctioned off as slaves. Captivated by this dramatic discovery, Julia sets off to North Africa to determine the authenticity of the book and to uncover more of Cat's story. There, in the company of a charismatic Moroccan guide, amid the sultry heat, the spice markets, and exotic ruins, Julia discovers buried secrets. And in Morocco - just as Cat did before her - she loses her heart. Almost 400 years apart, the stories of the two women converge in an extraordinary and haunting manner that will make readers wonder - is history fated to repeat itself?
My Rating: 4.5

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