The Silk House

Written by Kayte Nunn
Review by Fiona Alison

Three storylines in two timelines make up this evocative tale. In 1768, Rowan, a young maid with a healing gift and the sight, joins the household of a silk merchant in Oxleigh. Mary-Louise is an impoverished pattern-drawer in 1768 London whose designs modeled on wildflowers and herbs, both efficacious and poisonous, are like nothing seen before. In the present day, Thea, a history teacher and hockey coach, accepts a job at an exclusive boys’ academy in Oxleigh. She finds herself playing housemistress at the Silk House to thirteen boarders who are the first female students ever to attend the school.

All three stories are entwined well, with time and place firmly grounded, and the changes in the town over the centuries well-described. Rowan’s personal growth follows a particularly interesting arc, as she is tasked by the merchant’s wife with the ultimate in herbal concoctions in dangerously suspicious times. The addition of the enigmatic housekeeper, Dame Hicks, in the present day, presages a sense of the unknown. As in many gothic novels, the house is a character in its own right, a living organism, thrumming with history and the centuries of life it has guarded within its walls.

The Silk House exudes haunting peculiarities which indicate the dead don’t rest in peace. Still groaning under the weight of unfinished business, the edifice appears to be seeking someone with whom to open a channel between past and present. Paranormal events plague Thea: walls that aren’t solid, dirt piles which rise up through the floor, beetles in the tea leaves, dead fish in the pond. Nunn evokes a haunting sense of foreboding through her writing, and I particularly liked her inference that the woven silk yardage could hold something ominous within its threads. Well recommended for those who enjoy eerie gothic tales.