The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

The Lace Weaver Cover.jpg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 19 March 2018

 

Love, war, suffering, oppression, hope and lace all come together in this emotionally charged debut from Australian author Lauren Chater.

It has been two years since the outbreak of World War II.  Following their respective expansions, Nazi Germany and the USSR now control much of Europe between them.  The small country of Estonia, located on the border of the USSR, has been occupied by the Soviets and is now controlled by Stalin’s Red Army, who have brutally installed their communist ideals.  Now all of Estonia’s resources are controlled by the Soviets and any signs of opposition are brutally cracked down on.

In the middle of this horrific occupation lives Katarina, a young Estonian woman whose family survives because their farm produces food for the occupying forces.  While the Soviets are attempting to control all parts of Estonian life, Katarina works to preserve her family’s culture through their lace shawls, which contain intricate and unique patterns and stories.  She must also deal with her feelings for her old friend Oskar, who is leading the revolution against the Soviets.

At the same time in Moscow, another young woman, Lydia, lives an ostensible life of privilege, but is really living in a gilded cage, controlled by her ruthless guardian.  Fleeing to Estonia, the land of her mother, Lydia attempts to find sanctuary but finds out just how far her captivity truly extends.

When a Soviet crackdown forces Katarina and Lydia together, these two women must find a way to survive the horrors of the occupation.  As they become part of Oskar’s resistance against the Soviets, Katarina and Lydia must learn to work together, even when Lydia falls for Katarina’s brother Jakob.  But their situation is about to get even worse, with the forces of the Third Reich set to invade.

This is fantastic first book from Chater, who has woven together an amazing tale filled with great characters and an outstanding and underused historical location.  This book is also an extraordinary piece of dramatic literature.  All of the main characters experience significant loss, heartache and disappointment as they attempt to survive the most turbulent time in our world’s history.  These heartbreaking losses of friends, family and other loved ones draw the reader in, while Chater’s fantastic writing makes them feel the character’s loss and grief as she highlights the brutal reality of those caught in the middle of war.

Perhaps the most memorable part of The Lace Weaver is the story’s central setting of Estonia.  During World War II, Estonia was in the unfortunate position of being one of the countries that fell between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  Estonia was a significant theatre of war where many horrors occurred, and yet very few novels focus on this part of World War II.  Chater’s decision to focus on this underused period of war history is intriguing, and she has done a commendable job of calling attention to the horrors experienced by the Estonians during the time that they were occupied by two of the world’s most brutal regimes.

Estonia was brutally occupied by the Soviets in 1940, and a large portion of this book is set during this period.  Chater does an amazing job of describing this brutal period through the eyes of her Estonian characters.  There is a serious sense of dread from these characters as they anticipate what horrible crimes might occur next.  The descriptions of the Soviet soldiers’ brutality and contempt for the Estonians is at times harrowing, and there is one sequence describing a mass deportation that will stick in the reader’s mind.  While the scenes describing the occupation of the Soviets are pretty distressing, one of the most disturbing parts of this story is that for much of the book many of the characters, especially Oskar and Jakob, believe that their salvation and freedom could be granted to them by the Nazis.  Reading this can prove to be disquieting as you are forced to watch the characters help the Nazis occupy their country.  The characters working out what they have let into their country is chilling to behold, and by this point readers will be desperate to see what happens next in Estonia.

In addition to focusing on the terrible occupations Estonia suffered during the war, The Lace Weaver also contains an insightful look into some aspects of Estonian culture.  This is mainly shown through the use of the lace shawls, which are described as an important part of Estonian culture and history.  Chater spends a large part of the book investigating these shawls, and the reader soon appreciates their importance.  Katarina spends a significant part of her narration describing the significance of these shawls to her family, and her interactions allow the readers to see how vital they were to her social and familiar circles.  These shawls are also very important to the story as they draw many of the characters together, especially the two main characters, Katarina and Lydia.  The scenes in which the shawls are being worked can also be seen as an indicator of the periods when the characters are managing to survive and have some hope for the future, and are to be cherished, especially as the reader grows to care for these characters.

There are some great characters within The Lace Weaver that readers will find themselves deeply invested in.  Narration of this story is split evenly between the two main characters, Katarina and Lydia, both of whom have unique stories to tell.  Lydia’s transformation from a sheltered girl in Russia to a hardboiled Estonian survivor is particularly gripping, and revelations about who she actually is offer big thrills in the first part of the book and up her personal stakes.  Katarina’s story of survival and her attempts to keep the cultural ways of life she inherited from her beloved grandmother are also heartfelt and compelling.  The unique stories that these two characters have are deeply absorbing and emotional, and Chater does a masterful job of eventually combining these two stories together into one extraordinary and captivating tale.

The Lace Weaver is a deep and emotional wartime drama that makes full use of its dark setting, rare historical fiction location and amazing characters.  Australian author Lauren Chater has produced a very impressive first book and readers will fall in love with this fantastic tale.

My Rating:

Four stars

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