History: Published in 1996, it was translated into English in 1997.
Plot: The novel tells the story of a French silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler named Hervé Joncour in 19th century France who travels to Japan for his town's supply of silkworms. In 1861, the journey to obtain silk was a treacherous one. Due to an epidemic that infected most of the European stocks of silk worms the men who buy the eggs of the worms were forced to travel further from home to replenish their stock.
Hervé Joncour is a buyer and seller of silk worm eggs for the silk mills in the French city of Lavillediea. Every year his travels take him away from home to Egypt and other African ports to buy the stock of his trade. Because of the epidemic, he is forced to undertake a dangerous and desperate journey over half the known world to buy healthy eggs from Japan. It is a dangerous and desperate trip. Travel, since the Suez Canal has not been completed, takes months to get to Japan from France. Once there, Joncour is smuggled into the country as Japan’s ports are not yet open to foreigners. The price he will pay if caught taking silk worm eggs out of Japan is his death.
There he meets a woman, the mistress of his host. They do not touch, they do not speak to each other, and he can not read the letter that she gives him. Once Joncour hears what it says, “Please return or I will die”, he becomes a man possessed. When in France with his wife Helené, Joncour is a man changed by the Orient. While in Japan he is trying to find ways to meet his host’s mistress without raising the suspicions of the townsfolk, and their lord. Over the course of several years, and several visits to Japan, he establishes some contact, but she never speaks to him. In the end, after the last visit to Japan in which he finds the village in ruins from war, the baron, Hara Kei, holds him at gun point, tells him to go home. His wife, Helene, tricks him with an erotic letter that he thinks is from the Japanese woman, but it really isn’t. Helene dies, and he continues to make a fortune from the silk worm trade.
Review: Silk is an enthralling love story. It is haunting in it’s telling of two star crossed lovers fated to meet but never to act upon their love. It is told with simplicity and a moving plot that transports its readers to France in the late nineteenth century.
Opening Line: “Although his father had pictured him for a brilliant career in the army, Herve Joncour had ended up earning his crust in an unusual career which, by a singular piece of irony, was not unconnected with a charming side that bestowed on it a vaguely feminine intonation.”
Closing Line: “Occasionally, on windy days, he would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.”
Quotes: “His life was as rain before his eyes, a vision of piece.”