The Lace Weaver (Simon & Schuster 2018), the debut novel by Lauren Chater, begins: ‘They say Estonia has five seasons. Bitter winter. Pale spring. Autumn, when the forests are carpeted with mushrooms. Summer, with its blue cloudless skies and rich harvest of fruit. Lastly, my favourite: the thaw.’ Beautiful imagery to start us on this journey. This prologue is the only time we hear from Elina, although she is a constant presence throughout this story of love, war, grief, sacrifice and struggle. Elina’s granddaughter, Katarina, is keeping alive the family tradition and skill of lace weaving, creating beautiful gossamer-fine shawls with distinct and unique patterns. Kati narrates alternating chapters of the book as she describes her life in rural Estonia with her brother, Jakob, and their parents, as they struggle to make ends meet under the Soviet occupation of 1941. The second narrator, Lydia, the daughter of a prominent and important Soviet leader, tells her story from a perspective of privilege and means. Lydia and her companion, Olga, both miss Lydia’s Estonian mother, who died too young, and find it difficult to live up to the expectations of her strict father.
These two girls – or young women – are strong protagonists in a well-crafted tale. Both face differences of opinions with their parents, albeit for different reasons. Both have chaste romances – Kati with local boy Oskar, and Lydia with student Joachim – which are threatened by the approaching events of war. Both must find it within themselves to brave the onslaught of deprivation, violence and discrimination coming first from the Russian soldiers, and then from the German Nazis who they had hoped would liberate their country but instead bring only more of the same trouble.
Kati and Lydia are engaging and well-drawn characters. I did find their voices somewhat similar, which sometimes made it difficult to distinguish them, but perhaps this was the author’s intention – to draw parallels between these two young women of very different backgrounds and to alert us to their similarities and the commonalities that bind them together. Their families of origin, their relationships with other friends and family members, and their place in their communities was depicted with clear-eyed detail. The research devoted to this book is obvious, although never heavy-handed or shown off. But I certainly learnt a lot about lace-making, about the relentless push of Stalin’s Red Army, about the tiny country of Estonia and its culture and traditions, and about the Forest Brothers, resistance fighters who courageously defied both the Russian and the German occupying powers.
The two other main characters in the story, Oskar and Jakob, were less of a presence in the first part of the book, and I felt I didn’t know them – or like them – as well as the women. But as the story developed and we learnt more about their characters, they too became an integral part of the story, and by the end, I cared very much about both of them.
The book is full of beautiful imagery and metaphor, the most obvious being the gorgeous lace shawls and their patterns, which begin each chapter. But there is also the image of the wolf, a touchstone for Kati in memory of her grandmother, which appears throughout the novel. The many themes explored include the bonds between women, and between mothers and their children, the vulnerability and innocence of youth, the indomitable spirit and pride of nationalism, the spark of desire and romance despite the odds of circumstance, and the ties of friendship in times of trauma.
The Lace Weaver is an easy to read story that traverses a period of great turmoil in history and shines a light on a small part of the world that many of us probably know little about. Although this is a work of fiction, I feel I know Estonia a little better, and certainly understand its history and its people on a deeper level.