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BOOK REVIEW: The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

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.

1941, Estonia. As Stalin's brutal Red Army crushes everything in its path, Katarina and her family survive only because their precious farm produce is needed to feed the occupying forces.

Fiercely partisan, Katarina battles to protect her grandmother's precious legacy - the weaving of gossamer lace shawls stitched with intricate patterns that tell the stories passed down through generations.

While Katarina struggles to survive the daily oppression, another young woman is suffocating in her prison of privilege in Moscow. Yearning for freedom and to discover her beloved mother's Baltic heritage, Lydia escapes to Estonia.

Facing the threat of invasion by Hitler's encroaching Third Reich, Katarina and Lydia and two idealistic young soldiers, insurgents in the battle for their homeland, find themselves in a fight for life, liberty and love.


My Thoughts:


A heart-wrenching novel of love, war and resistance set in Estonia in the 1940s, The Lace Weaver tells the story of two very different young women and their struggle to survive in a country caught between two of the greatest evils of the 20th century: Stalin’s Red Army and Hitler’s Third Reich.

The story begins in 1941, when Estonia is under Russian rule and suffering brutality, hunger and mass murders and deportations. Kati and her parents are doing the best they can by keeping their heads down and doing as they are told. Kati quietly rebels by keeping her beloved grandmother’s lace weaving circle alive, with a group of women meeting in secret to make the exquisite lace shawls that Estonia is famous for. The lace patterns become a repeating motif throughout the book, with each section named after one of the designs: Wolf’s Paw, Ring Pattern, Peacock’s Tails, Spider Stitch, Ash Pattern, and so on. I really love this aspect of the book, as the patterns became symbols for what the characters endured.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, another young woman named Lydia is living a life of ease and privilege with the bejewelled cage of the Stalinist elite. She longs to escape, however, as she gradually becomes aware of the cruelty of the Russian dictatorship. Eventually, she and her old nurse Olga escape to Estonia, only to be caught up in that country’s struggle for liberation.

For the oppressed Estonians, the news that Hitler’s forces are marching towards them brings hope and jubilation. It is not long, however, before they realise that they have exchanged one cruel regime for another. And Kati and Lydia are caught in the maelstrom, struggling just to survive.

This is a novel of love and war, heartbreak and hope, and the bonds between women, delicate as lace and yet as unbreakable as steel. Powerful, subtle and beautifully written and composed.

I was lucky enough to interview Lauren Chater recently, you can read it here.

You might also be interested in my review of The Betrayal by Kate Furnivall.

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

INTERVIEW: Lauren Chater

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

 

Today I welcome Lauren Chater, author of The Lace Weaver, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

I’ve always been a daydreamer. When I was a child, I would make up songs and spells out of nonsense words just to see whether they ‘fit’ together. Reading books gave me permission to turn my daydreams into something more focussed and I would happily get lost for hours in stories by Enid Blyton and Ethel Turner during the school holidays. As I’ve gotten older, I actually think my capacity to daydream has increased to the point where I will very often have to ask someone to repeat a question because I’m still thinking about a story idea or something I’ve read. My husband finds it annoying but thankfully he’s learned to live with it and I’ve learned to stop apologising. It’s the writer’s curse (and blessing).

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I often dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid, but it wasn’t something I took seriously until I had my son when at 28 years of age. It was more of a hobby, something I dabbled in now and then. Now I look back on all those wasted years and think, ‘what was I doing? I could have been honing my craft!’ The truth is, though, that I was gaining life experience in my twenties – traveling, falling in love, falling out of love, making friends and then losing them, living in a unit the size of a shoebox and one which was a veritable roach motel, getting married and trying to forge a corporate career and having babies. I didn’t realise it at the time but all those experiences have helped me understand more about myself and others and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I need to imagine what life must be like for one of my characters, I have a wealth of experience to draw on. After I made the decision to try my hand at writing novels, I did a lot of courses (many of them yours!) and I’m also going back to uni this year to complete my Masters in Creative Writing so I think my path is set now. Writers don’t just write; they live in the moment and observe. So I like to think that’s what I was doing all those years I wasn’t putting pen to paper.

How did you get the First Flash of inspiration for this book?
The idea for this book came to me as I was shelving books at my local library (where I was working at the time). I was in the craft section and a book called Knitted Estonian Lace caught my eye. I was intrigued enough by the title to pull it down and have a quick skim through. What I read there – the brief history of a little Baltic country which had been occupied by first the Russians then the Nazi’s during WW2 and the tradition of knitting lacy shawls which was passed down from mother to child, convinced me that there was a story waiting to be told. As I did more research into the terrible atrocities that were committed by the Soviets in the Baltic states, I began to wonder if the shawls could be a voice for the women who were oppressed. It seemed to me to be a topic which was worth exploring and writing about.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I would like to say ‘a lot’ but the truth is that I’m quite an organic storyteller. I don’t like to know all my character’s secrets – I prefer them to be revealed to me as the story unfolds, at least in the first draft. My method is sketchy at best; I start by researching and allowing my mind to circle lots of different possible ideas and then I’ll hone in on certain events or motifs that whisper to me ‘I’m important!’ I think our subconscious actually knows a lot more than we give it credit for! So I like to give it a bit of free reign in those early stages as it throws up lots of interesting ideas I might not have hit on if I was plotting it all out in a very organised way. I also think following my main characters is important; if I know their history and their background, then the actions they take and the decisions they make within the world of the story will emerge naturally rather than feeling forced. I have no idea if this is a very efficient way to write (I suspect not) but it’s my process and I don’t think I can change it. I did read something that Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) wrote the other day which I found very validating. It was, ‘Whether you consciously structure your plot or whether you allow it to develop more organically, chances are the end result will [be] the same.’ That’s not to say that writing courses and workshops and textbooks aren’t vital to understanding structure – they are – but once you’ve absorbed the knowledge of how story works it should really just fall into place as you write. I think paying attention to your own response to what’s happening on the page is important. The writer is really a reader, too so as I write I ask myself, ‘am I getting bored? Does this feel natural? Would she really say that?’ If the answer is no it’s back to the drawing board – or in my case, the keyboard.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I have in the past. They’re certainly good for providing the initial rush of ideas to be explored. I’m a little more wary of them now as we’ve all had those dreams that we think will make BRILLIANT pieces of fiction and then when we sit down to write them they fall flat… I think they can be really helpful in untangling plot points and specific problems but it’s rare that I’ve dreamed up a whole story or a novel from start to finish. I know you (Kate) have found dreams to be instrumental in your practice. Maybe you should give some classes on how to access the liminal dreaming space. I’d sign up in a heartbeat!

Did you make any astonishing or serendipitous discoveries while researching your novel?
Haha because I research and write in that very intuitive way it feels like every discovery I made on this journey was serendipitous and astonishing! But no, there were some things which really made my skin tingle and gave me goosebumps – that’s when I knew I was onto something. Discovering that there was only a week between when the Soviets deported thousands of Estonians and when the German Nazi’s invaded Russia and occupied Estonia? That gave me goosebumps. What an astonishingy awful thing to go through; losing your friends and family, who’d been deported to Siberia, and then having to deal with the incoming occupied forces… That was a bit of a turning point in the narrative. Then of course traveling to Estonia and seeing the lace shawls, visiting the knitting museum in Haapsalu, a little seaside town on Estonia’s western coast, felt particularly significant. And then on the last day, our tour guide managed to locate a man whose father had been a forest brother. This man was now a ranger, and a conservationist and he knew a lot about the forest, the flora and fauna. It was wonderful to be able to ask questions about native plants and he took us deep into the forest and showed us an old bunker where some members of the Soviet anti-resistence movement had lived until they died in a shootout with the KGB. As we emerged from the forest later, I saw an old farmhouse with a thatched roof and lots of sheep dotting the fields and my heart lifted because it was exactly how I imagined Kati’s farmhouse might have looked. And they were sheep farmers, too! That felt an amazing moment of serendipity.

What do you write and when?
I write mainly historical fiction because that’s what I love to read. I do like to branch out and practice writing contemporary short stories but every story requires such a great amount of energy that I have to really concentrate on the historical in order not to fall behind deadline. As a completely different thing, I’m also writing my first non-fiction book, a little baker’s compendium called Well Read Cookies which features biscuits I’ve baked inspired by my favourite books. It’s coming out later this year also through S&S and it’s SO MUCH FUN… It’s totally whimsical and combines my love of baking with my love of reading. I can’t wait to share it! I write three days a week during school hours and sometimes on the other days, if my mum can babysit, but not in the school holidays. It’s just too hard with little people demanding my attention (which they have every right to do, I’m their mum!)

What is your favourite part of writing?

I love the feeling that comes when something is working in my writing; when I’ve pulled the strings together and it’s starting to feel real. It’s euphoric, like falling in love and for a short while, time ceases to exist and it’s just me and the page. Then of course, I have to go pick my kids up and I read over my work later and reality comes crashing down. Oh no, I think. It’s terrible! It’s not the wonderful, perfectly crafted piece of prose I thought it was! Then I laugh at myself and try to remember that everything can be edited once you’ve got something to work with.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I used to believe in writers’ block but now I don’t. My advice (to others and myself) if I get stuck is to just keep going. If you sit there long enough at your desk and keep writing, something will happen. You actually will find a way around the obstacle. Sometimes the obstacle might be not enough research but I just keep going in those cases and make a note to come back and check the facts later. It’s true, what they say about writing being rewriting. Almost everything needs to be rewritten at some stage so I try not to get all panicky and worried about that and I just move forward with the project. As a last resort, a deadline is a great way to punch through a mental block. Who has time to worry when you’ve got to deliver a manuscript in a month? You just do your best and the rest will come.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I love doing courses and workshops, but they can get expensive and also they’re quite time-consuming, so if I can’t get out I just read, read, read. That keeps my well full! Reading books both in and outside of my genre has really helped me improve in my approach both to the writing and the structure of my novels. I’m always on the lookout for good recommendations from people I trust, be they booksellers, librarians, authors or bloggers. I recently read The Wonder by Emma Donoghue which you recommended and I absolutely adored it. It was incredible! It’s great when you stumble across someone who has the same taste in books so you can stalk their reading pile… and if buying new books is costly there’s always the library.

Do you have any rituals that help you write?
I don’t need much in order to write; just Word on my laptop and a quiet space. I know some writers are very ritualistic and I often look at pictures of their beautiful desks scattered with crystals inside their dedicated study-rooms and I sigh with longing… But my house is chaos when my children are around and I don’t have time to worry about the perfect conditions so as soon as they’re at school, I just roll up my sleeves and get to work. One day I will have a study of my own and I do dream of that day. Hopefully it comes sooner rather than later!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Only ten? I’ll have to shut my eyes and ramble them off before I start second-guessing myself! Ok… Tracy Chevalier, Geraldine Brooks, Kate Forsyth, Alice Hoffman, Sarah Waters, Isabel Allende, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman and Hilary Mantel.

What do you consider to be good writing?

Writing is so incredibly subjective so the notion of what is ‘good’ will differ from person to person. For me, good (fiction) writing isn’t just about smooth and perfect prose that won’t ‘offend’ the reader or jolt them from the narrative. It’s about channelling an idea or telling a story that twists in surprising and unexpected ways. My favourite kind of writing always has an element in it that I think of as The Weird. The Weird is what makes a story stand out amongst the many hundreds of stories I’ve read before. It might make the reader uncomfortable or unsettled - and that’s ok. At least it’s provoking a response! Fiction shouldn’t just be about telling the same comfortable stories over and over. It should engage and inspire and enlighten us as readers and remind us that there is hope, even when things are bad. My favourite books all do that is some way.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Start by taking short courses. The State writers’ centres are a good place to start and there are professional organisations who run weekend workshops, too. Go along with an open mind and absorb as much as you can from your teachers. They are wise and wonderful people who have walked the path you want to tread. Then read, read, read and practice, practice, practice. Share your work with (certain) people that you trust or, if you want someone to give you objective feedback, see if you can arrange a manuscript assessment. It’s so hard to know what’s working and what’s not when you’re too close to the manuscript. This is true of published authors as well as emerging which is why editors exist. Editors are your friend. Listen to what they say, even if you don’t agree, and then go back and read your own work, imagining that you are a reader with no pre-knowledge of what the piece is about. Also, be humble about your achievements and friendly to other authors you meet. It’s a small industry and there are enough readers to go around. Another author’s success in your genre benefits everyone because it means readers will be out there wanting to find a similar book – and maybe, with luck, it will be yours.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on finishing off my non-fiction book, and then I’m diving back into the last half of my draft for my second novel, Gulliver’s Wife, which tells the story of Gulliver’s Travels from the perspective of his long-suffering spouse. It’s a bit different to The Lace Weaver, in that it’s set in 17th Century London, but there are similar themes which run through it such as the nature of women’s work, female friendship and forging your own path against the odds. It’s totally ambitious and I don’t know if I can pull it off but I’m going to try!

You can read my review of The Lace Weaver here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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