Author Natasha Lester says of KAYTE NUNN’s new book, The Silk House, that ‘The titular Silk House is at onceeerie and evocative as it leaves its mark on its inhabitants – and as its influence transcends time to create a mystery that is so compelling I found myself racing towards the final pages. Utterly spellbinding’
Good Reading caught up with KAYTE NUNN to find out about the inspiration behind the book.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Weaving. Healing. Haunting. The spellbinding story of a mysterious boarding school sheltering a centuries-old secret…
Australian history teacher Thea Rust arrives at an exclusive boarding school in the British countryside only to find that she is to look after the first intake of girls in its 150-year history. She is to stay with them in Silk House, a building with a long and troubled past.
In the late 1700s, Rowan Caswell leaves her village to work in the home of an English silk merchant. She is thrust into a new and dangerous world where her talent for herbs and healing soon attracts attention.
In London, Mary-Louise Stephenson lives amid the clatter of the weaving trade and dreams of becoming a silk designer, a job that is the domain of men. A length of fabric she weaves with a pattern of deadly flowers will have far-reaching consequences for all who dwell in the silk house.
The Silk House is based on a house from your hometown in England – can you expand on how this house was so inspirational for the novel?
Although I was aware of some of the town’s history when I was growing up, on a visit a few years ago I discovered that an 18th-century silk merchant’s house was one of the high street’s buildings, and that it had recently been restored. Visitors are able to take a tour and learn about life then for that family. As I had seen the work of renowned 18h-century silk designer, Anna-Maria Garthwaite, in London’s V&A Museum only days before, the two things felt somehow related.
The Silk House follows three separate women in two different time periods – now, and the 1760s. Was it challenging to cover such different times in the one novel?
Not especially – I love how past events can influence the present, and the way in which history is still evident in objects and built things, and I enjoy writing novels where a mystery from the past is solved in the present. I find it helps to write each timeline separately, usually the historical strand first.
Did you have a favourite among the three characters?
I love all of them! But I suppose, Rowan, with her pluck, her talent for healing and sense of fairness really stands out for me.
Definitely, although my school was an all-girls one, but the archaic traditions (we used to have a ‘Boar’s Head’ dinner every year where we paraded through the house with a pig’s head on a platter, for example) and emphasis on sport and getting up to mischief at night sometimes were definitely similar. Also, some of the teachers really were peculiar!
The Silk House has elements of herbalism and healing, and your previous release, The Botanist’s Daughter, also had a focus on plants. Is this interest to do more with history or botany itself?
A bit of both really. When I was in my early teens, I wrote, illustrated and made a book – sewing the pages together, and gluing on a cover, and it was a herbal recipe or charm to use against your enemies, so I think I’ve always had an interest in that kind of thing. I’m also fascinated how an everyday plant growing unnoticed in a garden can possess medicinal properties.
Both of these books are also split between modern-day Australia and historical Britain – what is it about women in British history that stands out to you?
I grew up in England (apart from a few years in the US) and the history I was taught was mainly British history, so that is where my base knowledge comes from I suppose. I’m interested in women’s lack of agency both in the past and the present, and how they have dealt with it in different social and economic classes.