Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Forgotten Seamstress - Liz Trenow - Review & Author Q&A

Today I am very pleased to be part of the blog tour for The Forgotten Seamstress, the new novel by Liz Trenow. Below you'll find a Q&A with the author, and my thoughts on the novel.

 Q&A with author Liz Trenow

Thank you for taking part in this Q&A Liz. Could you tell us what the thinking was behind The Forgotten Seamstress – did the idea for the story grow from one initial thought/idea/experience in your life or several?
Liz Trenow
Several: the idea of setting a novel around a quilt started some years ago when I visited the quilt show at the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. One of the quilts there had a secret hidden inside it.  I won’t tell you how, because it would give away a part of the plot of The Forgotten Seamstress!
Then, when I was researching my own family history (they have been silk weavers for three hundred years) I went to the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree, Essex, and chanced upon a case of the ‘May Silks’. These are unique and very beautiful damasks and brocades, some with interwoven gold and silver threads, hand woven for the trousseau of Princess May for her wedding to the heir to the British throne in 1893. The silks themselves were entrancing but it was the story behind them which most intrigued me.
I decided to set the novel partly in a mental asylum because, as a teenager, I was an inpatient in a ward set aside for minor clinical operations at an enormous Victorian mental hospital close to my home town. The sights and sounds of the place left a deep impression on me. It was like a country mansion set in its own grounds but surrounded by high fences – outwardly grand and yet with such an oppressive and ominous atmosphere.

What do you see as the pleasures and challenges of writing historical fiction? 
The pleasures are many – I love researching and fitting a set of fictional events and characters into and around real-life events.  Days in the British Library reading newspapers of the time are great fun and old movies and clips on U-tube are totally invaluable: there’s nothing like moving images to get the imagination going.
The challenges are also many – it is amazing what you need to know about a period when you are writing in it.  What are the sights, smells and sounds of the place? What did things cost? What sort of food did people eat – every day and on special occasions?  What did they wear? And the most challenging of all, how did they talk to each other – it is possible to research ‘period’ slang, but how were their sentences constructed?  You can never be perfect, but you try your very best to be as true to the period as possible.

Do you enjoy reading historical fiction yourself? Do you read a variety of fiction/non-fiction for your own pleasure?
I read all the time, and much of it is historical fiction (or fiction set in a period before our own, at least).  When I am researching and writing I mostly try to read novels set in or written in the period in which my own novel is set, and usually try not to read ‘out’ of this period, because it can be confusing.
I also read masses of non-fiction, particularly when researching – histories, biographies and a fair bit of ‘technical’ stuff. For instance, for The Forgotten Seamstress I had to find out what kind of treatments and drugs were administered to mental patients during the period in which Maria was incarcerated. As well as understanding quilting, I also had to learn about upholstery so that Caroline’s project was authentic and realistic.  When I was researching my first novel, The Last Telegram, I had to become a bit of a geek about parachute design and porosity.

I read that you had previously worked as a journalist – had it always been in your mind that you’d like to write fiction one day?
Many journalists say they’ve got a ‘novel in their bottom drawer’ and I suppose it was always in my mind that I would write a novel. I dabbled with short stories, plays and poetry along the way, but writing a novel was my ‘climbing Everest’ project. When I got made redundant I couldn’t pretend any more that I was too busy:  I had to bite the bullet and start writing. Doing an MA in Creative Writing helped a great deal because I met a group of other people who were also serious about writing.
Being a journalist helped in many ways: I can type fast, am not afraid of a deadline, discipline comes as second nature, I know how to research a topic and love interviewing people for my books.
But it is also a drawback because journalism is such a very different discipline, and it’s hard not to fall back into your old ways when writing fiction. For example, journalistic writing will describe an ‘action scene’ in fast, short sentences. In fact, time seems to slow when we are experiencing a traumatic event so we need to reflect this when seeing from the perspective of a fictional character. It is counter-intuitive, but so true!

Are you currently writing – can you tell us about your next work at all?
I am currently doing edits on the first draft of my next book, The Poppy Factory. It will be published in August 2014, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. As the title suggests, the story revolves around the work of the real-life Poppy Factory which still employs disabled veterans making Remembrance Day poppies in Richmond, Surrey. Besides a poignant First World War strand it also has a powerful contemporary storyline based on interviews with two extraordinary young women who served as army medics on the front line in Afghanistan.

My next book will go back in time to the 18th century – set among the silk weavers of Spitalfields in London, where my family’s silk weaving history began.

Thank you very much indeed for being a guest on my blog, Liz!

Author's website


Book review - The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow

'Her history was held in the fabrics she'd used, the designs, and the appliqued figures.'

I read some super reviews of Liz Trenow's first novel, The Last Telegram, which I then bought though sadly have not yet read. I was therefore really pleased to have the chance to read this second novel; it was a very enjoyable, absorbing and well-paced read which I escaped into and became immersed in the lives that were described to me. 

Maria Romano has grown up in an orphanage after the death of her mother when she was very young. Close friends with Nora there, the two girls are selected due to their needlework skills to go and live and work in a wonderful, large house for a very wealthy family. This turns out to be none other than Buckingham Palace and the royal family. Maria soon notices the handsome Prince of Wales, and he in turn is attracted by her beauty. He encourages her attentions and there is a passionate affair, then, during his lengthy abscenses, she is left alone and bereft, and it's at this time she begins working on what will become a very special quilt; her needlework skills are her comfort, the thing she turns to in order to escape her situation; as she says, 'it was a way of escaping my loneliness.' She longs for the Prince to return, to rekindle their love, yet there is of course no future for the two of them together; there never could be. Events turn from bad to worse for Maria, and she is sent off and locked away in an asylum, where she experiences great despair and confusion, losing most of her sense of herself, until she again eventually finds solace in her needlework.

We meet Maria and here her story via the text of audio cassette recordings that were made when she was  much older, seventy-four, when a lady was researching the history of mental health care. This was a clever device for telling Maria's story and I liked how this was incorporated into the novel, bringing her days back to life through her own voice. I was moved by her story, the intense joys and the terrible lows Maria experienced during her life, and by her mourning the loss of what her life might have been; 'how would my life be now, I wondered, had I never set eyes on him, nor he on me? What could I have made of myself, do you think…?'

Almost in the present day, we meet Caroline Meadows. At thirty-eight, she has just come out of a relationship and wonders whether she will find love again, is at a turning point in her career - working in a well-paid yet soulless job in London, she dreams of using her creative, artistic talents once again - and she cares for her elderly mum whose health is being to fail, sadly she is beginning to forget things. Whilst helping tidy her mum's home, they come across an item that was intended to be passed on to Caroline by her Gran Jean; a beautiful old patchwork quilt. Caroline starts to look in to the background of the quilt, and as she does so, more details emerge as to the provenance of it and the incredible story behind it, and she begins the journey following a fascinating trail into her past.

The past is vividly evoked through Maria's recollections of her memories and her life. It is sad to read how she isn't believed, her true past buried for so many years, her life reduced to being held a virtual prisoner in the hospital. The present day story is engaging too, a woman aware of her age, rethinking her life and looking back at what her amitions were when she was younger, wondering if she can bring them to life before it is too late; the reader wondering if she can find the inspiration to do so. 

The novel's title is apt; talented seamstress Maria does indeed seem to have been forgotten by history, until now. Liz Trenow has written an imaginative, touching, romantic, sad historical story and combined it very well with a modern day strand that slowly reveals the connections between past and present.

Published by Avon Harper Collins - ebook 5th December 2013, paperback 16th January 2014


Visit the rest of the blogs on the tour - details below


  1. Great interview.

    It is always fascinating to learn how authors craft their work. It is also so very interesting to learn how much research goes into a book like this.

  2. I very much agree with Brian, a very interesting interview. I always marvel about the time and precision needed to recreate another period of time.

  3. Thank you both for such an interesting question and answer session, its always fascinating to read about how authors research their books - the time and effort that sometimes goes in is nothing short of extraordinary.

  4. Thank you all very much for your comments, much appreciated. x


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