The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In ‘The Tenth Gift’ Jane Johnson spins a story around an extraordinary piece of history:

In 1625 corsairs from North Africa sailed into Mount’s Bay, they entered a church and they took sixty men, women and children, to be sold as slaves.

That church might have been St Mary’s in Penzance, standing at the centre of Mounts Bay, just behind the harbour, clearly visible from the sea. My church, my mother’s church, my grandmother’s church ….

That drew me to the book, but it made me wary too. Because I knew that I’d know if she got it wrong. But I’m pleased to say that she didn’t get the things I knew wrong at all, she taught me some local history that I didn’t know, and that gave me so much confidence when she wrote about things that I didn’t, couldn’t know.

cornwall10Catherine Anne Tregenna, nicknamed Cat, was in service at Kenegie Manor, she was betrothed to her cousin Rob, but she wanted more than that. She was young, she was bright, she was spirited, and she hoped that her talent for embroidery would give her a chance to see more of life, more of the world. She had been given the chance to make an altar cloth for the Countess of Salisbury, and she hoped that might help her to win more commissions, and maybe even gain entry to Broderers Guild.

But her life changed when she and her mother went to church ….

Cat’s story was uncovered by Julia, in a second storyline set in the present day. When her lover left her he gave her antique leather-bound book.  ‘ Needle-Woman’s Glorie’  had been Cat’s book, and when she was torn from her home she began to keep a record of what she experienced, writing in between the embroidery patterns.

Julia followed Cat to Morocco – telling herself that she was researching the story she had uncovered, but also running away from the mess she had made of her life.

The two storylines worked well together, and the links and the mirroring of Cat’s and Julia’s lives didn’t feel contrived at all. But I liked Cat  far more than I liked Julia – it’s hard to care about a heroine who has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband – and her story was not nearly as strong as Cat’s. I would have liked the book more, I think, if the present day story had been pulled back to become a framing story, or even if it had not been there at all.

There was for than enough in Cat’s story – her life in Cornwall, her experiences when she was kidnapped, what happened in Cornwall after the raid – to make a fabulous book all by itself. There was a little dramatic licence taken, a little stretching of credibility, but not too much. Certainly no more than I could forgive when I found so much that was good.

The writing was wonderfully readable, the plotting was very well done, and I loved the links to real history and to the authors own story. I appreciated that she was even-handed, that she understood that the corsairs had reasons for doing what they were doing, that there was right and wrong on both sides, that there could be much common ground between people from different backgrounds and different cultures.

The evocation of time and place – of Cornwall and of Morocco – was so very vivid that it pulled me right into the story. And I couldn’t doubt for one moment that the author was writing of what she knew and what she loved.

8 responses

  1. I find it interesting how many writers of historical fiction seem to think that it is necessary to run a present day narrative along with the central story. There are so many of them that I even ran a Summer School on the subject three years ago. Of course, some of the books work better than others but I do wonder what is the impetus behind the author’s decision in the first place and to what extent some of them are simply following a current fashion.

    • Well, I think there’s an element of trying to be commercial – selling to the people who wouldn’t pick up a straight historical novel without alienating those who would – and maybe an element of author’s wanting to put themselves or what they know into the story.

      Jane Johnson has more reason than most – the present day story reflects elements of her own life story and it is possible that one of her family was among those taken from the church.

  2. I enjoyed The Sultan’s Wife, which is also set in Morocco, so I must read this one at some point! I’m pleased to hear you thought the Cornwall parts of the book were accurate as that’s something I wouldn’t really be aware of.

    • I have The Sultan’s wife and I do like the look of it but I wanted to go for Jane Johnson’s first book (under her own name) first. Though this one has its faults I think that you’ll find much to enjoy when you come to read it.

  3. oh! I read this book so long ago and that time it was published as Crossed Bones ….I remember being absolutely subsumed by the extraordinary history, that I mailed Ms. Johnson and spent I think 3 months reading all about North Africa..I am so glad you liked it…I must do a re-read soon!! thank you for reminding me!!

  4. I remember reading this some years ago…I was so awestruck by the extraordianry history that I read up everything about North Africa for the next three months….so glad you enjoyed it

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