Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
A short way into Stella’s Carpet, a heartfelt and lovely novel by the Canadian writer (and Silver Sage contributor) Lucy E.M. Black, a primary character who has become fairly obsessed with the ancient art of carpet weaving, is shown pondering a striking Persian sample: “Its otherness intrigued him; it spoke to him of worlds he did not know.”
This notion stayed with me throughout my reading of Black’s short and rather assured book. Not only does it nicely describe my response to Stella’s Carpet, but it also succinctly captures the impetus behind one of my own obsessions—reading fiction in the first place. I love reading novels simply because they whisk me to places I don’t have a clue about and show me around.
In one sense, reading Stella’s Carpet was for me just like one of these guided tours. It’s about a young woman, the titular character, just starting out in life, having grown up as an only child in Ontario, Canada. About her father, a dentist who develops an unusually strong interest in the craft—and, eventually, in a woman who is not his wife. About Stella’s demanding and critical mother, whose disillusionment in marriage leads to her own fruitless obsession with Hollywood stars. About Stella’s maternal grandparents, who emigrated to Canada after experiencing great terror and trauma in Nazi-occupied Poland.
These and a few other characters are all going about their lives in and around a town called Waldham, not far from Toronto. It seems like a small and rather innocuous part of the world. But, as I just explained, there is a lot going on with each individual character in this tale, and it is through Black’s deft handling of them all that we sense the richness and the familiarity of the story. I was reminded of the famous line by Robert Frost, who observed, “You can’t be universal without being provincial.”
We are introduced to this contained world initially through the eyes of the adult Stella, invited to participate in a book launch that celebrates the legacy of a character who has recently passed on. This has put her in a reflective state of mind, contemplating all that had led to that moment. She recalls it as an “emotional time”—an idea that is connected to one of the book’s epigraphs, which states that “sorrow and gladness are linked together.” This nicely sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
From there, Stella’s Carpet darts backward and forwards over more than half a century, from the second World War and its aftermath to the present, nimbly shifting perspectives between characters as the novel proceeds. Black handles this weaving together of intermittent strands, if you’ll forgive the language, adroitly—and keeps this relatively quiet story’s momentum going by crafting short, vignette-like chapters throughout.
I found this to be a smart choice because it accelerates the pacing of what is, at least on the surface, unassuming material. It is only as we draw close to the conclusion, and afterward, that the reader grasps the richness and the complexity of each character and the tapestry their individual stories blend to create.
Through flashbacks, readers witness Stella’s gradual coming of age, the only child of parents who have fallen out of love with each other. She navigates her way into early adulthood cautiously, even somewhat timidly, attending teacher’s college and embarking on a stable but relatively uninteresting career. She has dreams and aspirations of her own but remains tied by a sense of loyalty to both parents.
In a relatively small space, Black carefully uncovers deeper layers beneath Stella’s story. We learn about her mother’s parents and their escape from war-torn Europe, arriving in Canada as an attempt to put the terrible things they witnessed behind them. This turns out to be not so easy, especially for Stanislaw, Stella’s grandfather, who remains somewhat paralyzed by fear and paranoia. “You never forget fear,” Stella’s grandmother, Maria, explains. “It is always with you.” Unfortunately, the ghosts from her parents’ wartime traumas negatively impact Stella’s mother in ways that could not have been predicted.
William, Stella’s father, on the other hand, is raised somewhat dispassionately by stiff and proper parents with little love to share. He follows his path dutifully, excelling in school and eventually at dental college, growing adept at keeping up appearances. But a chance encounter with a Persian carpet on his landlord’s wall as a young adult leads William to a new passion. He becomes enthralled by a fascinating trade, its roots extending back to ancient times. This interest eventually leads him to Fatima, a beautiful woman of Iranian descent whose personal history centers around this craft. William leaves Stella’s mother for her and goes on to start a second family.
As the novel explores these numerous, nuanced relationships, long-held secrets are gradually revealed, and more than one tragedy intervenes. Stella finds herself reeling from both loss and previously unknown circumstances surrounding her own identity, all the while keeping one eye on her future, trying to summon the strength to do what is best for her. All of this is handled with graceful aplomb by Black, who has a poet’s eye for vivid detail and an historian’s grasp of the way humanity’s conflicts can cast long shadows over more than one generation.
But it is the rich metaphor of carpet-making that provides a unique and vibrant quality to this novel. Even a cursory look into the painstaking craftsmanship and historical significance of the art form reveals that there is much more to it than meets the eye. And, of course, that is also the case with each of us—the complex strands of our own lives, and of those lives that influenced our existence.
“Family is more than who you’re related to,” one character observes thoughtfully late in the book. Stella’s Carpet is Lucy Black’s contribution to an endless list of worthwhile novels that achieve something noble and necessary: they provide readers with fresh perspective on something they already know.
Photo credit by: Juli Kosolapov @yuli_superson
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.