Friday, July 9, 2021

Emma's Tapestry, by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel Blackthorn, March 2021

We follow Emma Taylor, née Harms, from her marriage in Philadelphia to a British merchant, to London, Singapore just before the start of World War One, Kobe in Japan, Colorado, and eventually back to London.

The story is told in very nonlinear fashion, "starting" in London in 1940, with German-born, American-raised Emma, a nurse, at the bedside of an elderly, Jewish heiress, who loves to tell stories of her friendship with Oscar Wilde. At this point, we know Emma’s husband, Ernest, is gone from her life, though we don't know why or how. Her two daughters are grown.

And she is very, very worried about anyone learning that she is German-born, not American, and has English nationality only by marriage. 

We jumped in subsequent sections to her meeting the handsome, charming Ernest at a party and her Mennonite family's displeasure with her marrying him, the challenges of adapting to life in the expatriate community in Singapore, where the heat and the necessary adoption of some local ways are difficult for Emma’s cautious conventionally, and the first World War descending on them. There's enough anti-German sentiment, that she becomes truly alarmed at the prospect of anyone finding out about her German origin.

After the war, now with two daughters, Ernest's company transfers them to Kobe, Japan--where Emma quickly learns that the local people have good reason to resent the expatriate business community. The one saving grace is that Ernest, while now a less than attentive husband, is a devoted father.

When events occur that break the marriage, Emma takes her children and flees to the USA--only learning too late that the parents she hoped to stay with have died, in the influenza pandemic. She arrives instead at the home of cousins she has never met, and who, though well-inclined, truly have no room in their growing household for three more people. They help her get settled, though, and it's good for a while--till her fears of anyone learning the truth of her origins is proved rational fear, not paranoia. Knowing that she's going to be in London with her grown children in the end doesn't make the intervening experiences less distressing.

A unifying theme throughout the books is Emma's tapestry, or rather tapestries, a hobby she first adopted in Singapore. The silk tapestry she started in Singapore, and the wool tapestry she started in Japan, as well as smaller ones along the way, becoming a binding force in her life. There were times when I couldn't quite like Emma--but those behaviors and attitudes were quite real, and born in some very harsh experiences. She's a strong woman, a devoted mother, and when circumstances allow her to be, a dedicated and excellent nurse. This is a really compelling story. Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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