Jane Johnson’s historical fiction novel, “The Tenth Gift”, was a fast read for me! I have to say this book kept my interest so much that I read it quickly, but the final chapter was such a stretch that it almost ruined the story. However, I did enjoy learning about Morocco and the references to needlework were especially enjoyable, since I love stitching : )
As I did some research afterward I found that some of this book actually parallels the author’s own experiences. Jane Johnson is a Cornwall native, and like Julia, the main character in this story, she travelled to Morocco to research the possibility of an ancestor being taken by Muslim pirates. There are other similarities between the novel and the author’s life that, for the purpose of avoiding spoilers, I will not mention here : )
I was curious to find what other reviewers thought of this book, as I was in turn, both enthralled and discouraged in my reading, to come across the almost casual acceptance of adultery and brutality (piracy almost justified as a form of revenge between cultures and countries).
The main character, Julia Lovatt, is given her severance by her paramour. At the same time, he gives her a parting gift that he knows she will appreciate; a seventeenth century needlework book. As Julia begins to read the book she finds notations written like a diary interspersed between the patterns in the book, and embarks upon an adventure that leads her ultimately to Morocco.
I did enjoy learning more about Cornwall’s history, the Barbary pirates, and Moroccan culture. And, as I have mentioned, I loved reading about needlework!
“On the first day she took them though some of the more basic stitches and was relieved to find that not all were unknown to them, although they had different names for them all. Damask stitch, flat stitch, and a type of darning stitch they were all familiar with. She showed them in addition cross-stitch, chain stitch, and a simple herringbone, which made them laugh: To them it looked more like a stalk of wheat than a fish. They showed her in turn Fez-stitch, a sort of reversible backstitch producing work that looked the same on both sides of the fabric.”
I do wish that Julia had ‘woken up’ to the pain she was causing her ‘best friend’ by engaging upon a seven year affair with her husband. That part of the book was almost enough to make me stop reading right from the start. But the other thing I had trouble with, was understanding how Julia herself could be attracted to such a selfish and self-serving man!
“Dye and clever cosmetics can hide a lot, but what they cannot hide are the erosions caused by catastrophic life experience. Lines were deeply incised on either side of her beautifully painted but downturned mouth….She walked right past us and out into the sunlight without seeing us at all, and it struck me that I was watching the passage of a deeply unhappy woman.
I pondered that for some time on my return journey. I knew in my gut that the depth of grief I had seen etched into her face was that of a women who has known for a very long time that her husband is unfaithful to her, a woman who has borne his infidelity silently, and only let the mask slip in private, or in an unguarded moment such as the one I had just witnessed.”
Ok, so what I want to know is, *why* did it take Julia this long to realize the pain she was causing? And, even more unbelievable is, *why* does her best friend so readily offer forgiveness and friendship? The author does not let us see the process that Julia’s wronged friend goes through to reach such a decision. To me, that would have made for a very revealing and interesting plot (such as in the nature of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”). In real life, there are often sad consequences to our actions and choices. (Tolstoy does a superb job of portraying Anna’s progression and downward spiral of despair from her resulting consequence, rather than choosing to move forward and seek forgiveness for her actions. In Jane Johnson’s novel, Julia seems to reap forgiveness and a new start in life automatically, without any effort on her part. All of her efforts instead, seem to be engaged in pursuing knowledge of what happened to Catherine Tregenna).
I had to agree with one review I read, that too many modern novelists seem to use ‘time-travel’ as a literary device. Having dual characters at vastly different time periods within the same novel sometimes works, but also sometimes would make for a better story if they were written individually.
“He led me around the city walls until we reached a monumental gateway, towering twenty feet and more above us. Despite its enormous size and the massive nature of the stonework, I was astonished by its beauty, for the arch seemed poised overhead as if held by some invisible inner tension between the two towers on either side and by the delicate traceried net of its mystical, interweaving patterns and scripts.
“This is the Bab Mrisa,” Idriss told me as we both gazed up at it. “The Little Harbour. In the seventeenth century, before the river silted up and changed its course, the corsairs sailed their ships right into the fortified heart of the city through this gate. It was through the Bab Mrisa that your Robinson Crusoe was brought. “Our ship making her course between the Canary Islands and the African shore, was surprised in the grey of the morning by a Turkish rover of Sallee,” he quoted suddenly.”
I did appreciate several of the characters in the book and especially admired the perseverance of Catherine’s fiance, Rob, and his willingness to suffer in order to rescue her. That was a great picture of sacrificial love!
Jane Johnson is a talented writer. My feelings, at best, upon reading this novel, were mixed, but to quote from another review I read here: “I wondered several times why I was reading a book involving adultery, suicide, and violence but the book’s fast pace and compelling story kept my eyes glued to its pages. ”