Book review: The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow
Last year’s stunning debut novel, The Last Telegram, explored the secrets of Second World War silk production, and now she unravels the threads of history again to bring us this heartbreaking tale of a talented young seamstress in the early decades of the 20th century.
When the East End orphan girl lands a top job in the sewing room at Buckingham Palace, she catches the eye of the dashing Prince of Wales… and her fate is sealed.
Trenow’s family have been silk weavers for nearly 300 years and this age-old industry has become the inspiration for her fascinating historical novels which embroider the past in all its rich detail and exciting texture.
It’s 2008 and 38-yearold Caroline Meadows is at a crossroads in her life. Newly single and newly jobless, she has temporarily retreated to her mother’s rural cottage in north Essex where the old lady is struggling in the foothills of dementia.
It is there she rediscovers a magnificent old quilt which had once been a familiar sight in her grandmother Jean’s home and, intrigued by the touching little verse embroidered into its lining, she sets out to discover who made it and the meaning of the mysterious message.
Almost 100 years earlier, before the First World War had cast its shadow, Maria Romano, a half-Italian teenage girl, is preparing to leave the East End convent where she has been raised to take up a prestigious job as royal seamstress.
When Maria, who has an amazing gift for sewing, is called to make adjustments to the investiture costume of David, the young Prince of Wales, he is taken by her dark-haired beauty and arranges for her to visit him again.
Maria, naïve and impressionable, is captivated by his interest, glamour and passionate intensity and falls head over heels for the fair-haired prince with his Greek god looks and mischievous smile.
But careless talk in the cloistered palace causes terrible repercussions and soon Maria’s life is taking a turn more sinister than she could ever have imagined.
As Caroline struggles with her own problems, can she piece together the quilt’s hidden, harrowing past to reveal the terrible truth about what happened to Maria?
The Forgotten Seamstress is an outstandingly crafted story, drawing together two women whose lives cross in piquant parallels but who remain separated by a century of history and an enormous weight of social change.
Their individual fates are sewn together by the shining star of this compelling and shocking story… the silver-threaded, lovingly worked patchwork quilt with its achingly beautiful love-knot and heart-rending, hidden verse.
The clever, multi-layered unwinding of Maria’s dark destiny is itself a delicate work of art. Trenow evokes time and place with a subtle blend of authenticity, small detail and a perfectly pitched sense of understated personal drama whilst delivering an unforgettable and highly emotional story.
An imaginative, moving and captivating novel from an author with a keen eye and a special sense of history…
(Avon, paperback, £7.99)