Two needlewomen, centuries apart, find love and career satisfaction in Morocco in this novel from Johnson, the publishing director at HarperCollins UK .
In the early 17th century, corsairs (aka Barbary pirates) from Salé and other Moroccan cities raided coastal waters and villages in the British Isles, kidnapping and enslaving sailors, fisherman and townsfolk. Johnson employs two through-lines, past and present. Julia, a London yuppie and textile craftswoman, is dumped by her longtime lover, antiquarian book dealer Michael, husband of Julia’s best friend, Anna. As a consolation prize Michael hands Julia an antique leather-bound Needle-Woman’s Glorie, a handbook of embroidery patterns, defaced by the marginal jottings of a flame-tressed woman named Cat, age 19. In 1625, Cat, a housemaid to minor Cornish nobility, is reluctantly betrothed to her adoring cousin Rob. She has ambitions that would take her far from her native Penzance, Cornwall. She’s been stitching an altar cloth of her own design for the Countess of Salisbury, hoping to gain entry to the all-male Broderers Guild. By chance, Cat attends a Puritan church service. In mid-sermon, Barbary pirates swarm in and abduct the congregation. Shackled in the ship’s filthy hold, the captives endure starvation and disease. When Al-Andalusi, the ship’s raïs (captain), is wounded in a sea battle, Cat is summoned to his cabin to suture his wounds. Smitten, Al-Andalusi has semi-honorable designs on her. But as the ship approaches Salé harbor, she insults his Muslim faith and is dispatched to the auction block. Back in the present, Michael realizes he’s unintentionally given Julia a priceless artifact. He stalks her to Morocco, where she’s gone to research Cat’s story. But thanks to Julia’s historical quest and a handsome guide named Idriss, she’s now Michael-proof. Cat, sold to a rich merchant, manages his all-female embroidery factory. But the identity of her master is uncertain—could it be the raïs, who’s growing on Cat by the day?
Johnson’s innovative style and tone (informed by her own Moroccan vision-quest) transforms what could have been a conventional swashbuckler-bodice ripper into a witty page-turner.