Each lace shawl begins and ends the same way – with a circle. Everything is connected with a thread as fine as gossamer, each life affected by what has come before it and what will come after ~ The Lace Weaver.
The Lace Weaver is a powerful story of war told through the experiences of women.
Beautifully written, the novel touched my heart and, long after I finished the book, left me thinking of two unforgettable images. The first image was that of a delicate shawl spreading over the shoulders of a woman, a woman burdened with sorrow, oppression and the fight for survival, not simply the fight for her own survival, but also that of the people she loves. The second image is that same shawl being pulled through a wedding ring, with the hope it will re-emerge triumphantly in its full glory. The shawl is the work of one individual woman, but its creation births through the agency of women who come together, sharing their skills and expertise, and the stories they tell one another. The finely woven threads of the shawl become stories in themselves, linking women from the present, and down the generations. They are threads of faith and love – of belief in the continuation of life.
In 1941, the people of Estonia are desperately struggling to survive the terrible subjugation and oppression of Stalin’s Russia. It is an oppression little hiding its intention to inflict genocide on the proud Estonian people. Then World War Two sees Russia pushed out by Germany – and the people of Estonia hope for better times, only to discover that one hard battle for survival is exchanged for yet another.
Chater tells the story of this time and place through the point of views of two different yet similar young women: Katarina and Lydia. Katarina is a proud Estonian and gifted shawl maker. Living on a farm with her parents, farmers forced to supply the occupying forces with the fruits of their labour, leaving very little for their own subsistence, Katarina must surmount tragedy and work out ways to keep the threads of her existence, and that of others, from fraying beyond repair.
Lydia is the daughter of a powerful and tyrannical Russian leader and his Estonian mistress. Wearing the treasured shawl of her mother, she runs away from the cold, brutal man she does not know is her father, leaving Russia to go to Estonia – pulled by the memories of love and her dead mother’s heritage.
Katarina and Lydia, who soon rejects her unwanted Russian blood for her Estonia birthright, bond in a deepening sense of sisterhood during a time of great heartbreak – both of them suffering great loss and witnessing the worst of what humans can do to one another.
All through the novel, the intricate and delicate Estonia shawl is used as a compelling writing device to bring together the threads of the story, symbolizing the strong connection between the women in the story, and women everywhere. It also symbolizes the fragility of life; life tested but which can still emerge unbroken and magnificent.
The Lace Weaver is impressive, powerful and skilfully told anti-war novel from an extremely gifted writer. I now look forward to reading more of Chater’s works.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.