She didn’t understand how quickly a life can fray. How a single thread come undone can cause the unraveling of everything else around it.
But that was not the worst of the dream. The worst of it was this: I woke wanting the same thing I had wanted back then. I woke wanting Maman. I woke wanting to touch that lace. And I knew if I had to do it all over again, I would do the very same thing. The worst was knowing I could not have done anything other than what I did.
(from The Ruins of Lace)
Lace is beautiful and intricate, and when King Louis XIII of France banned foreign and domestic lace in 1636, it became highly prized and dangerous. In The Ruins of Lace, Iris Anthony focuses on the brutal conditions under which lace was created, how it was smuggled from Flanders to France, and how greed for lace padded the pockets of some and led to the downfall of others.
Set in France and Flanders in 1636, The Ruins of Lace is told from the alternating viewpoints of seven distinct narrators: Katharina Martens, a lace maker in a Flemish convent who has gone blind from more than two decades of working in the dark and will be cast out if she can no longer produce lace; her sister, Heilwich Martens, who has worked long and hard to save enough money to buy Katharina’s freedom and will do anything to prevent her being thrown out of the convent and forced into prostitution; Denis Boulanger, a soldier whose very life might depend on being able to spot the lace smugglers crossing the border from Flanders; a dog used to smuggle lace over the French border; Lizette Lefort, whose desire to touch beautiful lace cuffs caused her family to lose everything and whose guilt caused her to withdraw from life; the Count of Montreau, who cares about nothing but securing his title and enough money to cover his excesses; and Alexandre Lefort, a young man sent on an impossible journey to obtain the lace that will save the woman he loves.
I was pulled into the novel from the very first page because I couldn’t believe that lace was ever banned and that something so delicate had the power to destroy lives. Anthony is a talented storyteller whose beautiful writing brings a little known part of history to life. She does a superb job juggling so many characters, and structuring the novel so that the narrators change every chapter and cycle through in the same order makes it easy to keep track of the different voices.
Despite the myriad narrators, The Ruins of Lace boils down to just two stories — Katharina’s and Lizette’s — and the other characters are just vehicles to bring about the resolution. From the beginning, it’s obvious how their stories will be connected, but the journey is what counts. Anthony appears to have done her homework in detailing the heartbreaking conditions under which Katharina works, not knowing when she will have outlived her usefulness and be tossed aside without a penny to her name. The lace even becomes a character whose presence is felt during every tense moment of the smuggling scenes. And though I wasn’t crazy about the dog’s narration, it’s sad to think about the 40,000 dogs killed over 15 years as they tried to move lace into France and the constant abuse they endured as they were trained to do so.
The Ruins of Lace was heavier than I expected for a book about lace, but I couldn’t put it down and finished it in a day. Although the ending felt a big rushed and certain plot elements felt contrived, it’s a decent novel that should be read for the intriguing characters and the fascinating history behind the story.
Disclosure: I received The Ruins of Lace from Sourcebooks for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.