Needlepoint, corsairs, Cornwall's coast - such subjects and setting seem like an echo from the past. Yet in The Tenth Gift, Jane Johnson makes plot relevant and characters sparkle as contemporary heroine Julia Lovat flees from heartbreak and her historical counterpart Catherine Tregenna seethes in the hold of a vessel on pirate-infested seas. The dual stories dramatically alternate, with Johnson creating verisimilitude in both the 17th and the 21st centuries.

The storyline springs from rumors of a congregation kidnapped from a Cornwall church during a slave trader's Sunday raid. As Johnson discovered while researching a family legend, the rumors were true. Few records remain of those English captives' experiences in North Africa. Johnson recreates their ordeal through the observations of Catherine both as character and as a diarist, since Catherine's journal has fallen into Julia's hands as a farewell gift from her married boyfriend. Julia studies the archaic language and imagines Catherine's plight, described in lines like these, written from the ship: "This verie mornyng old Mrs Ellys expired at last from weaknesse &andamp; shock of losyng her poor husbande, but no one has taken her bodie, she lyes in the ordure &andamp; addes to the stink." To learn more about Catherine's plight, Julia leaves London for Cornwall in a rush and then, even more impulsively, takes off for Rabat. Johnson's storytelling skills are great. Almost 200 pages pass before either character gets to Morocco - Julia by air and Catherine in chains - and yet the stories of their daily lives enchant from page one.

Johnson, publishing director at HarperCollins UK, comes by her knowledge of Morocco honestly. She met and married a man on a trip to Morocco, and they now live part of the year in a Berber village. Her writing is mostly free of stereotypes. Even the archvillain Al-Andalusi, Catherine's chief captor, exposes his softer side. His murderous passions spring from the Inquisition's destruction of his own family.

The Tenth Gift explores love, forgiveness, work, captivity in its various forms and the meaning of life. Characters strive to build their faith whether they understand everything that happens to them or not. A based-on-true-life plot makes for a riveting tale, all the way to the improbable if emotionally satisfying ending.

Andrea Brunais writes from Tampa, Florida, and Bluefield, West Virginia.

comments powered by Disqus