I hardly know where to start to describe the complex and sensual tale that is Burning Silk. Layer upon layer of themes are explored, but the overarching theme is that of a young woman’s journey, her metamorphosis, from uninitiated naiveté into maturity in her profession of maitresse of her family’s magnanerie (the sacred facility in which silkworms are nurtured as they mature toward their final purpose), which is inextricably linked to her own sexual and personal awakening.
Set in the early nineteenth century, the youngest female in a line of French Huguenot maitresses, Catherine Duladier unwittingly begins her journey as the representative of her family’s business to a French perfumerie on the Cote d’Azur. There, she meets and works with with a ruthless scientist known as “The Great Nose,” who is attempting to replicate the alluring scent of the female silk moth. She becomes a victim of this experience, which sets into motion her family’s expansion of their business from France to the New World (southern Pennsylvania), where the French Huguenots join with the matrilineal Iroquois and other cultures to advance their venture. It is here, in this new land that Catherine’s own metamorphosis, along with that of the silkworms, rises to a haunting crescendo.
This novel is an exquisite piece of literary historical fiction. It has been referred to as “erotic fiction,” but I would rather describe the book as being one of “literary sensuality.” The eroticism in Burning Silk is explicit, but not extraneous; it serves the plot and the humans inhabiting it. The scenes are sophisticatedly written, although one of these scenes in particular—a rape scene in the first third of the book—can be an uncomfortable experience for the reader to witness. Do not let this stop you; it is integral to the plot. The other scenes are powerful, sensual, and open-minded, exploring the life-affirming nature of passion and love that exist both within and beyond conventional boundaries.
The book is written in beautiful, lush prose, and is not meant to be devoured in one sitting; there is much to contemplate and enjoy. The writing is sensual, sensitive, introspective, and flowing . . . Burning Silk is a deeply character-based creation. Destiny Kinal’s fresh descriptions evoke the scents (especially the scents, both fragrant and foul), the century, and the cultures the story portrays.
Burning Silk floats in an ethereal atmosphere, within a nature-based spirituality that is particularly palpable in the unspoken means of communication called “Dialog,” a product of evolution among the women of the profession, as well as in references to “The Old Text.” It is also brutally honest—refreshingly so—about the hardship that is childbirth and the mother-infant relationship. The way this story manages to honor both the ethereal and earthly aspects of life at the same time is a result of the author’s talent.
Editorially speaking, I noted a few issues that could be improved. One of the distractions in this book is the frequent switching of points of view from third person to first person and back again, sometimes in every other chapter, and at times even within chapters. This wasn’t distracting enough to ruin the reading experience for me, but it did prevent me from fully engaging in the story for quite a while, as I was focused on sorting out this perspective issue. I was halfway through the book before I finally got used to the “rhythm” of the narration.
Another quibble is that at times the plot was a bit too ruminative and the story became background to the introspection, instead of the other way around (a quibble I have with many literary novels; a balance between too much rumination and too little is challenging to achieve). Perhaps this is just a personal quibble, but I would have appreciated a bit more straightforwardness in the plot, as this slowed my reading pace.
The cover art is striking, the text is mostly clean of typos (I found only three or four), and it looks professionally typeset.
This book is not for everyone, however. Just as I stated in my review of Footsteps to Forever, the audience for one book can be completely different from the audience for another. In this case, readers who prefer more action and less rumination, or who desire a style lighter than “literary,” or who are offended by explicit sexual scenes may not enjoy Burning Silk.
In summary, were I an acquisitions editor at a mainstream publishing house, I would snap this one up, recommend just a few editorial changes—consolidating the point of view, for instance, and tightening the plot—and set it loose on the world! The subject and content of this book is not the stuff of mainstream appetite, however; and readers might have difficulty imagining how the topics of the science of fragrance, the physiology of silkworms, and the New World could combine to create a riveting story. But wasn’t Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth in a similar bind? How could the story of something so mundane as building a cathedral in a fictional town in medieval England lead to such a mesmerizing reading experience? But it did. And so could Burning Silk.
I highly recommend this beautifully written indie novel.
Burning Silk, Destiny Kinal, Sitio Tiempo Press, 2010, trade pb, 366pp, $14.95, 978-0-9844584-0
Destiny Kinal is a writer, book artist, marketing consultant, feminist, bioregionalist, and publisher. She lives in Berkeley, California, and western New York (from the author’s website, http://www.destinykinal.com/).
Burning Silk is the first in the Textile Trilogy, with the second in the series, Linen Shroud, expected to be released in 2013. Burning Silk is an award-winning finalist in the Literary Fiction category of the 2010 International Book Awards and a finalist in the Historical Fiction category of the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards.
Disclaimer: I received the book directly from the author when I was offering a giveaway on Stephanie Barko’s blog last year.