For the first moment they were all startled by the flare and whirl of colour which beat out on their eyes. The jade and blue and anemone pink were like three distinct shocks; then Loraine, with a cry of joy, plunged her hands into the brocade and embroidery, and shook it out before all of them, so that they could see that it was a Chinese coat – even before they heard the clank of the little gold Mandarin buttons, three at the throat and three at the hem.
Gazing at it, you might think that you had never seen embroidery before, for it was the very climax of all that was brilliant and exotic. The flower-petals were worked in a flaming pattern around the broad bands of kingfisher blue embroidery; and again round each oval plaque that was woven of a silvery heron with a long green beak, and behind his outstretched wings a rainbow. All among the silken arabesques, butterflies were delicately poised, golden butterflies and black butterflies, and butterflies that were gold and black. The closer you looked, the more there was to see; intricate markings on the butterfly wings, purple and grass-green and apricot…
And when you had looked closely, you looked again, from a distance, to exult in the perfection of the whole coat, stiff and gleaming folds of anemone pink, lining that was a flash of green lightning, bands of blue so intense that for very depth of colour it appeared to stir and shift and shudder, as the depths of the sea will stir while you look down into it.
observations: When this book, the second of the Rakonitz Chronicles, gave the blog a Mother’s Day entry, I promised or threatened the Chinese Coat entry. This is a central section of the book, and the coat has huge importance in the family life of the Rakonitz family. Two of the cousins, Val and Loraine, are together in Italy. A man who has recently been visiting them sends out this beautiful coat. Everyone assumes it is for Val. But he hasn’t actually specified – might it be for Loraine? Loraine thinks it is for Loraine, and she is in agonies over it. Stern gives equal importance to the subsequent events as she does to other life-changers – businesses collapsing, marriages breaking up. And she keeps the reader in curious suspense as to the facts of the matter. Loraine is a true horror of a person, but Stern makes it wholly convincing that many people adore her. The tension mounts. Loraine confides individually in the varied household that the coat is really hers, but she doesn’t want to upset Val. Each person thinks he or she alone has been trusted with this secret.
The ultimate fate of the coat (once the truth has been ascertained) is surprising, and sad, but satisfying.
This is such an enjoyable book (and thanks yet again to Hilary McKay for the recommendation). Stern is a clever writer, and her characters are real and complex and not black and white, and the same is true of their relationships. She makes you realize how simplistic many novels are in that respect.
And now, what an excuse to show wonderful pictures of Chinese coats. It’s not clear to me what the base colour of the coat is, or if it is multi-coloured. At another point, cyclamen, blue and emerald are mentioned. I don’t know if anemone pink is the same as cyclamen…
The top picture, from The Athenaeum website, is Lady in Chinese Silk Jacket by Bernhard Gutmann.
The other pictures have been used for past entries on the blog, sometimes more than once – I do like a Chinese coat, and they were obviously very popular in the first half of the 20th century. The authors mentioning them include Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford Monica Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.