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The Tenth Gift


The Tenth Gift

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go
on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they have never happened
before, like larks that have been singing the same five notes for
thousands of years.”

These well-chosen lines from Willa Cather mark the start of the
gripping and entwined tale of two women --- one an affluent
modern-day woman, the other a servant girl from the 17th century.
Thirty-something Londoner Julia Lovat is enmeshed in an affair with
the husband of her erstwhile best friend. Her married lover ends
the affair abruptly, giving Julia an uncharacteristically generous
gift in parting: an antique book of embroidery patterns. Julia
finds original diary entries from the early 1600s written in the
margins of the book in tiny, nearly indecipherable print.

As Julia transcribes these entries, she becomes engrossed in the
life of the book’s original owner and diarist --- 19-year-old
lady’s maid Catherine (Cat), who yearns for a more
adventurous life than the one that appears to be in store for her.
Cat is a gifted embroiderer who hopes --- somewhat optimistically,
considering her era and circumstances --- to be recognized as a
master artist. She is being pressured into marrying her upstanding,
if uninteresting, young cousin. Cat hopes for some great adventure
that will avert this dull fate, allow her to see the world beyond
Cornwall’s borders, and in turn show the world what she
herself is capable of achieving. Her idle ruminations on the future
come to an abrupt halt one day as Cat, along with 60 others, is
captured by Barbary pirates (or Corsairs, as they called
themselves) during a daring slave raid on the Cornish coast.

Julia, who has become invested in Cat’s fate and wishes to
escape her own past, decides to travel to Morocco to pick up the
thread of Cat’s narrative after she is sold as a slave. In
doing so, she embarks on a life-altering journey of her own,
finding much in common with Cat, who may in fact have been a
distant relative of hers.

The storyline moves seamlessly from Julia to Cat and back,
capturing each woman’s life with great verisimilitude. This
incredible story was inspired by first-time author Jane
Johnson’s own life. She wanted to write a novel based on the
life of a family member who was rumored to have been captured
during a slave raid by the Sallee Rovers (Corsairs from Salé,
now Rabat) and taken to North Africa. During her research into her
ancestor’s life, she discovered that between the 16th and
19th centuries, over a million Britons, many from Cornwall and
other coastal regions, had been captured and enslaved by the
Corsairs. Johnson’s research led her to Morocco, where she
met a man whose striking appearance impressed her so much that she
cast him as the pirate chief in her novel, never suspecting that
she herself would eventually marry the man in a Berber ceremony and
move to a remote village at the foot of the Atlas Mountains to be
with him.

Johnson’s writing is infused with her own understanding of
the two cultures, British and Moroccan, and she does a credible job
of explaining the diverse viewpoints of her central characters in
ways that remain true to them and their times. She weaves
historical fact unobtrusively through the narrative, pointing out,
for instance, that the Ottoman Corsairs took to piracy primarily in
retaliation for the atrocities committed by Christian Spain on the
Moors, such as the expulsion of third-generation Moroccan
immigrants from Spain during the reign of Philip III.

The spice markets, narrow lanes and heady perfumes of Morocco; the
wild beauty of the Cornish countryside; and the rhythms of daily
life in each are captured in lush, sensuous prose. The descriptions
of embroidery are so lovely as to make you want to learn to sew, or
at least go admire a beautiful old shawl. The portrayal of the
slave raid and its immediate aftermath, although detailed, is
somewhat lacking in emotional resonance, but even this does not
deter from the general narrative flow. The only jarring note in the
entire 400-page book came towards the end, where a minor and
tangential plot line felt forced to accommodate a supernatural
slant to the story.

This small criticism aside, Jane Johnson has spun a truly masterful
tale, confidently weaving historical fiction, suspenseful romance
and literary sleuthing into one captivating narrative.

Reviewed by Usha Reynolds ([email protected]) on January 23, 2011

The Tenth Gift
by Jane Johnson

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 0307405222
  • ISBN-13: 9780307405227