The Italian proverb ‘Old sins have long shadows’ is tactfully used at the beginning of Deborah Swift’s sequel The Silkworm Keeper. Where Swift’s first book in the series, The Poison Keeper, exhibits the nefarious activities of poisoner Giuila Tofana, the sequel sees Giuila wholly transformed as a nun, atoning for her past sins. However, a dark shadow indeed eerily hangs throughout The Silkworm Keeper, threatening to shatter Giuila’s peace.
A smooth transition into the second novel in the series, Swift constructs the exciting familiarity of Renaissance Italy alongside the headstrong protagonist Giuila. Though this time round, Giuila has embarked on a new path of holiness, devoted to God, and is introduced as a subdued, hardworking nun.
As Giuila is sent to oversee the new Convent of San Nicolo, on the decrepit and sparse island of Reggio, she is unaware that she will also be training five outspoken and stubborn sisters as nuns. Following the death of their father, the five Strozzi sisters are forced into this vocation against their will, under strict orders from their tyrannical grandfather Signor Strozzi.
Resembling a prison as the women are locked in the convent having all worldly possessions confiscated, Giuila struggles to balance her responsibilities. With no funds from Signor Strozzi, Giuila must ensure the success of the antiquated silkworm business if she is to obtain any way of living, whilst also managing the rebellious sisters as they continue to defy the ways of a holy life.
Meanwhile, the plot line interweaves with the story of Fabio Pasello, Giuila’s old friend. Fleeing from the ties of debt, Fabio seeks safety in the vibrant city of Rome and adopts a new identity. Luckily falling into the hands of Italy’s famous Bernini brothers, Fabio begins to make a decent living in the field of architectural sculpting. It is only a matter of time until Fabio and Giuila’s paths meet, and they must finally address their feelings for each other. Here, Swift seamlessly integrates a romantic element that is both emotional and teasing.
Additionally, Swift is also elegant and successful in conveying Giuila’s development throughout the novel. Giuila’s character is constantly tried and tested through a series of mishaps and bad luck, but her steadfast and determined nature is what keeps the reader rooting for her. Several moral and ethical questions often come into play, weaving neatly into the theological theme of the novel and creating tension as Giuila battles with her past mistakes.
The Silkworm Keeper is not only a captivating piece of fiction based on real historical events and people, but it also celebrates those brave women who fought for autonomy in unconventional and unpredictable ways amidst the shackles of an overbearing city and patriarchy. The Silkworm Keeper is a perfect complement to Swift’s first novel, and I am certain the third book will not disappoint.