Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In The Tenth Gift, Julia's lover, Michael, has given her an ancient book about embroidery, The Needle-Woman's Glorie as a good-bye present. Upon closer inspection, Julia finds not only an inscription, but also tiny hand-written print scattered amongst the beautiful embroidery patterns. It turns out that Catherine Anne Tregenna, Cat for short, a seventeenth century servant, had been using the book as a diary. What a treasure! In the book, Cat recorded her life in the Harris' household, her abduction by pirates and her life as a slave in Morocco. Julia is fascinated by the diary and goes to Africa to authenticate it. Even though they are separated by four hundred years, the stories of these two women share so many details it's as though they've lead parallel lives.

This is a great book; I loved it. It really is a delightful, well-written and easy to read piece of fiction. It's billed as a love story and while that part is quite good, it's the historical parts that drew me in. I was memorized by Cat's story in the 17th century. I had no clue that the Europeans were victims of slavery perpetrated by the Salé pirates from Morocco. Fascinating stuff. The parallel lives concept was very cleverly done and wonderful to follow. I especially loved how the author pulled all of the parallels together in the end. I also liked that the romance sections of the story weren't overly syrupy or over done. Johnson suggests the attraction rather than making it blatant. The treatment of the captives on the ship to Morocco was particularly disturbing to read, but offered variety and contrast to other parts of the book.

As for characters, I liked Julia, but I loved Cat. There was something about her and her story that drew me right in. I was particularly struck by her acceptance of her fate in Morocco. Michael, Julia's former lover, wasn't all that likeable, but I loved reading about Al-Andalusi and Idriss, Cat and Julia's love interests, respectively. Both men were mysterious, dark and, while not always likeable, especially in the case of Al-Andalusi, interesting.

I appreciated the map that was included at the beginning of the book with all of the relevant places marked. I liked having that picture in my head as I read the novel, especially because it concerned an area of the world with which I'm not familiar. Sure, I could look it up on the internet or in an atlas, but those maps are usually filled with irrelevant information. This is much better.

As much as I loved this book, I thought two of the "scenes" were a little over the top: the fact that Julia and Cat had similar writing styles and the scene near the end where Julia is in the attic with the candle. Both came across as contrived and impractical. These are very small parts of the book and didn't undermine the overall story at all.

My favourite quotes from the story are:
History is a very malleable thing usually written by the victors (page 309).

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 (page 3).

The author's note at the back of the book is very informative. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of research that goes into a book, especially one that references historical events. I bet this one was especially daunting because it took place in the 1600s.

I found two other covers for this book on the internet. While I love the Moroccan archway on this edition(pictured above), I really preferred the cover featuring the old weathered book.

This book would be great for book clubs. It's sure to stir up some interesting discussions about the treatment of women in other countries, the similarities between the women's lives as well as many other topics. This edition even has a reading guide at the back of the book with some great questions to get groups started.

Highly Recommended.

A very strange coincidence: I took a break from the book to watch an episode of Law & Order: UK on television. I thought I was seeing things when in the credits I saw the name Catherine Tregenna. It turns out she's a Welsh playwright who just happened to have written the episode we were watching. Spooky.

For more information about this book, please visit the Random House website.

For more information about the author, please visit Jane Johnson's website.


  1. thanks for the wonderfully written review. I have added this book to my TBR list.

  2. Thanks Heather. I was actually thinking that you might like this one since you're so crafty. There's only a few references to the embroidery patterns and work, but I still think you'd enjoy it.


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