Silk

( 24 )

Overview

The year is 1861. Hervé Joncour is a French merchant of silkworms, who combs the known world for their gemlike eggs. Then circumstances compel him to travel farther, beyond the edge of the known, to a country legendary for the quality of its silk and its hostility to foreigners: Japan.

There Joncour meets a woman. They do not touch; they do not even speak. And he cannot read the note she sends him until he has returned to his own country. But ...

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Silk

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Overview

The year is 1861. Hervé Joncour is a French merchant of silkworms, who combs the known world for their gemlike eggs. Then circumstances compel him to travel farther, beyond the edge of the known, to a country legendary for the quality of its silk and its hostility to foreigners: Japan.

There Joncour meets a woman. They do not touch; they do not even speak. And he cannot read the note she sends him until he has returned to his own country. But in the moment he does, Joncour is possessed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Silk has the brilliant colors . . . and the enchantment of a miniature. . . . Vividly erotic.” --Newsday

“A riveting, lyrical love story, an accomplished historical fiction, a compact, condensed . . . epic about human hearts in crisis.” --Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered

“A book with language to savor. . . . It seems as guileless as a folk tale but propels a reader with real force.” --Denver Post

“A heart-breaking love story. . . A stylistic tour de force [and] a literary gem of bewitching power.” --The Sunday Times

Newsday
Vividly and specifically erotic.
National Public Radio
A riveting, lyrical love story.. . .an epic about human hearts in crisis.
All Things Considered
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1861, after plague has destroyed the silkworms in the Middle East and Africa, French merchant Herve Joncour travels to Japan, a country of which little is known to the French, in search of healthier, better silk. Flouting a Japanese law against exporting silkworms, Joncour leaves his loving wife for what will be the first of many four-month journeys through Europe, Russia and Siberia to Japan, where he befriends a wealthy Japanese trader and falls in love with his beautiful young mistress. With each trip, Joncour's expectations of closer contact with the young woman escalate, as does the danger of his journey. Joncour finally receives a letter from the concubine, which he must take for translation to a Japanese woman living in a neighboring French village The letter encourages Joncour to travel to Japan one last time; what he finds there will change his life forever. Baricco, winner of the Prix Medicis and other awards for his two previous novels, uses the precise, formal language of the 19th-century realists to evoke exotic settings, vivid characters and historical details. Written in 65 spare chapters (some less than a page long, some evolving into verse), Barrico's fairy tale of East and West weaves a fine, tight fabric of recurrent phrases and motifs, a novel as delicate and strong as its subject.
Newsday
Vividly and specifically erotic.
Alan Cheuse
A riveting, lyrical love story, an accomplished historical fiction, a compact, condensed little epic about human hearts in crisis.
All Things Considered (NPR)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307277978
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/2007
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 293,991
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author

Alessandro Baricco was born in Turin in 1958.  He is the author of two previous novels, Castelli di rabbia, which won the Prix Médicis in France and the Selezione Campiello prize in Italy, and Ocean-Sea, which won the Viareggio and Palazzo del Bosco prizes.  He has also written essays in the field of musicology.  Silk became an immediate bestseller in Italy and has been translated into twenty-seven languages.
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Read an Excerpt

1.

Although his father had imagined for him a brilliant future in the army, Hervé Joncour ended up earning his living in an unusual profession that, with singular irony, had a feature so sweet as to betray a vaguely feminine intonation.

For a living, Hervé Joncour bought and sold silkworms.

It was 1861. Flaubert was writing Salammbô, electric light was still a hypothesis and Abraham Lincoln, on the other side of the ocean, was fighting a war whose end he would not see.

Hervé Joncour was thirty-two years old.

He bought and sold.

Silkworms.

2.

To be precise, Hervé Joncour bought and sold silkworms when the silkworms consisted of tiny eggs, yellow or grey in colour, motionless and apparently dead. Merely in the palm of your hand you could hold thousands of them.

"It's what is meant by having a fortune in your hand."

In early May the eggs opened, freeing a worm that, after thirty days of frantic feeding on mulberry leaves, shut itself up again, in a cocoon, and then, two weeks later, escaped for good, leaving behind a patrimony that in silk came to a thousand yards of rough thread and in money a substantial number of French francs: assuming that everything happened according to the rules and, as in the case of Hervé Joncour, in a region of southern France.

Lavilledieu was the name of the town where Hervé Joncour lived.

Hélène that of his wife.

They had no children.

3.

To avoid the devastation from the epidemics that increasingly afflicted the European stock, Hervé Joncour tried to acquire silkworm eggs beyond the Mediterranean, in Syria and Egypt. There lay the most exquisitely adventurous aspect of his work. Every year, in early January, he left. He traversed sixteen hundred miles of sea and eight hundred kilometres of land. He chose the eggs, negotiated the price, made the purchase. Then he turned around, traversed eight hundred kilometres of land and sixteen hundred miles of sea, and arrived in Lavilledieu, usually on the first Sunday in April, usually in time for High Mass.

He worked for two more weeks, packing the eggs and selling them.

For the rest of the year he relaxed.

4.

"What's Africa like?" they asked.

"Weary."

He had a big house outside the town and a small workshop in the centre, just opposite the abandoned house of Jean Berbeck.

Jean Berbeck decided one day that he would never speak again. He kept his promise. His wife and two daughters left him. He died. No one wanted his house, so now it was abandoned.

Buying and selling silkworms, Hervé Joncour earned a sufficient amount every year to ensure for him and his wife those comforts which in the countryside people tend to consider luxuries. He took an unassuming pleasure in his possessions, and the likely prospect of becoming truly wealthy left him completely indifferent. He was, besides, one of those men who like to witness their own life, considering any ambition to live it inappropriate.

It should be noted that these men observe their fate the way most men are accustomed to observe a rainy day.

5.

If he had been asked, Hervé Joncour would have said that his life would continue like that forever. In the early Sixties, however, the pebrine epidemic that by now had rendered the eggs from the European breeders useless spread beyond the sea, reaching Africa and even, some said, India. In 1861, Hervé Joncour returned from his usual journey with a supply of eggs that two months later turned out to be almost entirely infected. For Lavilledieu, as for many other cities whose wealth was based on the production of silk, that year seemed to represent the beginning of the end. Science appeared incapable of understanding the causes of the epidemic. And the whole world, as far as the farthest regions, seemed a prisoner of that inexplicable fate.

"Almost the whole world," Baldabiou said softly. "Almost", pouring a little water into his Pernod.

6.

Baldabiou was the man who, twenty years earlier, had come to town, headed straight for the mayor's office, entered without being announced, placed on the desk a silk scarf the colour of sunset, and asked him

"Do you know what this is?"

"Women's stuff."

"Wrong. Men's stuff: money."

The mayor had him thrown out. He built a silk mill, down at the river, a barn for raising silkworms, in the shelter of the woods, and a little church dedicated to St Agnes, at the intersection of the road to Vivier. Baldabiou hired thirty workers, brought a mysterious wooden machine from Italy, all wheels and gears, and said nothing more for seven months. Then he went back to the mayor and placed on his desk, in an orderly fashion, thirty thousand francs in large bills.

"Do you know what this is?"

"Money."

"Wrong. It's the proof that you are an idiot."

Then he picked up the bills, put them in his wallet, and turned to leave.

The mayor stopped him.

"What the devil should I do?"

"Nothing: and you will be the mayor of a wealthy town."

Five years later Lavilledieu had seven silk mills and had become one of the principal centres in Europe for breeding silkworms and making silk. It wasn't all Baldabiou's property. Other prominent men and land-owners in the area had followed him in that curious entrepreneurial adventure. To each one, Baldabiou had revealed, without hesitation, the secrets of the work. This amused him much more than making piles of money. Teaching. And having secrets to tell. He was a man made like that.

7.

Baldabiou was also the man who, eight years earlier, had changed Hervé Joncour's life. It was when the epidemics had first begun to hurt the European production of silkworm eggs. Without getting upset, Baldabiou had studied the situation and had reached the conclusion that the problem would not be solved; it would be evaded. He had an idea; he lacked the right man. He realised he had found him when he saw Hervé Joncour passing by the café Verdun, elegant in the uniform of a second lieutenant of the infantry and with the proud bearing of a soldier on leave. He was twenty-four, at the time. Baldabiou invited him to his house, spread open before him an atlas full of exotic names, and said to him

"Congratulations. You've finally found a serious job, boy."

Hervé Joncour listened to a long story about silkworms, eggs, pyramids and travel by ship. Then he said

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"In two days my leave is over--I have to return to Paris."

"Military career?"

"Yes. It's what my father wanted."

"No problem."

He seized Hervé Joncour and led him to his father.

"You know who this is?" he asked, after entering the office unannounced.

"My son."

"Look harder."

The mayor sank back in his leather chair, beginning to sweat.

"My son Hervé, who in two days will return to Paris, where a brilliant career awaits him in our army, God and St Agnes willing."

"Exactly. Only, God is busy elsewhere and St. Agnes detests soldiers."

A month later Hervé Joncour left for Egypt. He travelled on a ship called the Adel. In the cabins you could smell the odour of cooking, there was an Englishman who said he had fought at Waterloo, on the evening of the third day they saw dolphins sparkling on the horizon like drunken waves, at roulette it was always the sixteen.

He returned six months later--the first Sunday in April, in time for High Mass--with thousands of eggs packed in cotton wool in two big wooden boxes. He had a lot of things to tell. But what Baldabiou said to him when they were alone was

"Tell me about the dolphins."

"The dolphins?"

"About when you saw them."

That was Baldabiou.

No one knew how old he was.

8.

"ALMOST the entire world," said Baldabiou softly. "Almost", pouring a little water into his Pernod.

An August night, past twelve. Normally at that hour, Verdun had already been closed for a while. The chairs were turned upside down, neatly, on the tables. He had cleaned the bar, and all the rest. He had only to turn off the lights and lock up. But Verdun was waiting: Baldabiou was talking.

Sitting across from him, Hervé Joncour, with a spent cigarette between his lips, listened, unmoving. As he had eight years before, he was letting this man methodically rewrite his destiny. His voice came out thin and clear, punctuated by swallows of Pernod. He didn't stop for many minutes. The last thing he said was

"There is no choice. If we want to survive, we have to get there."

Silence.

Verdun, leaning on the bar, looked over at the two of them.

Baldabiou was busy trying to find another drop of Pernod in the bottom of the glass.

Hervé Joncour placed the cigarette on the edge of the table before saying

"And where, exactly, might it be, this Japan?"

Baldabiou raised his walking stick and pointed it beyond the roofs of Saint-August.

"Straight that way."

He said.

"At the end of the world."

9.

In those days Japan was, in effect, on the other side of the world. It was an island made up of islands, and for two hundred years had existed in complete isolation from the rest of humanity, rejecting any contact with the continent and prohibiting any foreigner from entering. The Chinese coast was almost two hundred miles distant, but an imperial decree had taken care to make it even farther, by forbidding throughout the island the construction of boats with more than one mast. Following a logic in its way enlightened, the law did not, however, prohibit emigration: but it condemned to death those who attempted to return. Chinese, Dutch and English traders had tried repeatedly to break through that absurd isolation, but they had been able only to set up a fragile and dangerous smuggling network. They had got little money, many troubles and some legends, good for selling in the ports, in the evening. Where they had failed, the Americans, thanks to the force of arms, succeeded. In July of 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry entered the bay of Yokohama with a fleet of modern steamships, and delivered to the Japanese an ultimatum in which he "hoped for" the opening of the island to foreigners.

The Japanese had never before seen a ship capable of crossing the sea against the wind.

When, seven months later, Perry returned to receive the answer to his ultimatum, the military governor of the island yielded, signing an agreement in which he sanctioned the opening of two ports in the north of the island to foreigners, and the start of some modest commercial relations. From now on--the commodore declared with a certain solemnity--the sea around this island is not so deep.

10.

Baldabiou knew all these stories. In particular he knew a legend that turned up repeatedly in the accounts of those who had been there. They said that that island produced the most beautiful silk in the world. It had been doing so for more than a thousand years, following rites and secrets that had achieved a mystic precision. What Baldabiou thought was that it was not a legend but the pure and simple truth. Once, he had held between his fingers a veil woven of Japanese silk thread. It was like holding between his fingers nothingness. So when everything seemed to be going to hell because of the pebrine and the infected eggs, what he thought was,

"That island is full of silkworms. And an island that no Chinese merchant or English insurer has managed to get to for two hundred years is an island that no infection will ever reach."

He didn't confine himself to thinking this: he said it to all the silk producers of Lavilledieu, after calling them together at Verdun's café. None of them had ever heard talk of Japan.

"We should cross the whole world to buy healthy eggs in a place where when they see a foreigner they hang him?"

"Hanged him," Baldabiou clarified.

They didn't know what to think. An objection occurred to some.

"There must be a reason that no one in the world has thought of going there to buy eggs."

Baldabiou could bluff by reminding them that in the rest of the world there was no Baldabiou. But he preferred to say things as they were.

"The Japanese are resigned to selling their silk. But the eggs, no. They hold on to them tightly. And if you try to carry them off that island, what you do is a crime."

The silk producers of Lavilledieu were--some more, some less--gentlemen, and would never have thought of breaking the law in their own country. The theory of doing so on the other side of the world, however, seemed to them eminently sensible.

11.

It was 1861. Flaubert was finishing Salammbô, electric light was still a hypothesis and Abraham Lincoln, on the other side of the ocean, was fighting a war whose end he would not see. The silkworm breeders of Lavilledieu joined together in a consortium and collected the considerable sum necessary for the expedition. To them all it seemed logical to entrust it to Hervé Joncour. When Baldabiou asked him to accept, he answered with a question.

"And where, exactly, might it be, this Japan?"

Straight that way. At the end of the world.

He left on October 6th. Alone.

At the gates of Lavilledieu he embraced his wife, Hélène, and said to her simply

"You mustn't be afraid of anything."

She was a tall woman, she moved slowly, she had long black hair that she never gathered on to her head. She had a beautiful voice.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

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(18)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2008

    Highly Recommend

    My normal topics to read involve international business affairs. I was so shocked by the emotion in this book I forced my boyfriend to read it. If you are a romantic this is a read for you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2012

    Those who gave this book a low rating don't get it. Throw those

    Those who gave this book a low rating don't get it. Throw those out and read the other reviews.

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  • Posted February 14, 2011

    Quit and Emotional Read

    Like many books that are turned into movies, I feel compelled to read the book first. I read this book in a matter of hours - of course the size of the book lends to that but also the way the writing flows sucks you into the story. Set in 1861, Alessandra Baricco takes you the Orient and introduces intriguing characters and plots. Baricco also fills his book with strong emotional imagery that comes across as poetry while at the same time using simple and direct words without embellishment.

    At first I didn't understand why Joncour became so obsessed with a woman, a concubine, he never even spoke to. Then I learned that "obsession" was not the right word to use to describe his overwhelming feelings about this woman. This book leaves you with a sense sense that Joncour felt he was never able to live to his fullest potential. Even though he is able to find a calm peace with his wife, Helene, and the life they create at home, his world is soon rocked when he receives a letter full of Japanese symbols that he believes is from this 'soul mate'.

    Unfortuantely, there are really no words that can describe the way this books left me feeling. You just have to read the book and find out how it ends......

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    using surprising few words...

    Silk is an emotional and affecting story of love and it's hold on Frenchmen Herve Joncour. "This startling, sensual, hypnotically compelling novel tells a story of adventure, sexual enthrallment, and a love so powerful that it unhinges a man's life." Herve spends years traveling back and forth from his home in France to Japan. He risks his life smuggling silkworms out of Japan in the 1860's, a time when foreigners were not welcome on Japanese soil. He travels back and forth between the two women he loves. His devoted wife Helene in France and a woman in Japan who is beyond his reach; he has never even heard the sound of her voice. Silk is a beautiful story written very gracefully. Allessandro Baricco writes a moving tale and paints a very vivid picture by using surprisingly few words. "The same spell will envelop anyone who reads Silk, a work that has the compression of a fable, the evocative detail of the greatest historical fiction, and the devastating erotic force of a dream."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2008

    An Eloquent, Mesmerizing Aria of a Story

    Alessandro Baricco's SILK is a rare extended poem or aria of a novel. The author's background as a musicologist is evident in the way he fashions his tale of sensuality and eroticism: statements are made only to be repeated verbatim later in the story of four excursions to Japan as though having said it once merely requires a reprise moments of visual senses and responses are in fragments, like breaths inhaling and exhaling the unspeakable quality of beauty and desire the 'chapters' are brief, often one page in length, like an aside to the reader. It is a hauntingly beautiful song and Baricco composes it well (the translation from the original Italian by Ann Goldstein is equally as sensitive). Hervé Joncour is a silkworm merchant living in 1861 France in a town Lavilledieu whose wealth is dependent on the silk manufactured form the eggs and hatched larvae of the silkworm. He is married to Hélène Joncour, a beautiful wife who allows her husband to make trips to far away lands to support the town industry. They are a happy couple, hoping for a child. Baldabiou is a businessman who encourages Joncour to travel to the then dangerous Japan to gather silkworm eggs not infected with the disease that threatens local eggs. Joncour sets out to Japan, a long journey through Europe, Russia, Siberia, and China to a Japanese village Shirakawa where he meets he chieftain Hara Kei - but more importantly, where he first encounters the gaze of a nameless beautiful woman - a girl with eyes not the shape of Oriental eyes - who appears to be a mistress of Hara Kei. That exchanged gaze, wordless, leads to the obsessive infatuation that rules Joncour's life. The story repeatedly visits this moment and the clandestine 'love' that occurs between the two. How Joncour and Hélène and Baldabiou and Hara Kei weave in and out of this silken fantasy provides the quiet yet operatic dénouement for this whisper of a story. Baricco manages to teach us about the silk industry, about the politics of the time, and about the East/West relationships with succinct means. But the greater challenge of the book is the relating of the erotic dream that is as elusive as the strands of silk that start it all. This is a novella (an extended poem) to be re-read many times, not only for the story but also for the magic of the author's unique writing. Highly recommended. Grady Harp

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2007

    This is a unique book!

    Lyrical...mesmerizing...beautiful...and unforgettable!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2007

    Haunting and beautiful

    When I read the summary I was instantly intrigued, so I bought the book right away. But when I started reading it I was surprised at the simplicity of how it was written. I believe its simplicity, the haiku-like way it was written, was one of the things that I found charming about the book. It is different and haunting, in a sense that anyone who has started reading would instantly be pulled in without even realizing it. A truly memorable story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2007

    Powerful

    A wonderful little book, beautiful tale full of poetry.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2005

    meraviglioso pezzo di poesia

    I red the book in its original language and should reccommand it to everyone! (I'm a dutch-speeking belgian). The strenght between the 'pain and sorrow of imposible desire' at one side and the boring everyday existense at the other, is wonderfull described by Alessandro Baricco. The compensation by creating an artfull garden is marvelous!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2003

    I guess I missed something

    Upon reading the synopsis of this novel, I was pretty confident that I was in for a literary treat. However, my opinion changed as I was reading it. If you're a reader who likes to know what the characters are feeling and thinking as the story unfolds, this book's not for you. The characters have an odd detachment from one another, a detachment which appears so blantant, that I didn't care where they ended up by the end of the novel. Skip it, you're not missing a thing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2001

    Amazing

    I was wandering around, looking at books, and happened upon this one. I don't regret the choice at all!! I would recomend this book to anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2001

    Beautiful

    Give yourself and hour to read this book and a week to get over it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2001

    The Ephemeral Sounds of Silence

    Silk, by Alessandro Baricco, is the story of Hervé Joncour, a French silk breeder living in the small town of Lavilledieu. In 1861, when epidemics were striking the hatcheries of Europe, Joncour began to travel to Syria and Egypt to acquire healthy eggs for the town. When his friend, Baldabiou tells his of the extraordinary silk produced in Japan, Joncour embarks on the first of four journeys to what then was determined to be 'the end of the world.' Traveling by train, horseback, and ship, Joncour always takes the same route and always deals with an enigmatic man named Hara Kei, 'the most elusive man in Japan, master of all that the world contrived to carry off the island.' But more important to Joncour than Hara Kei is Hara Kei's concubine, a young girl, of which we learn nothing, excpept that 'her eyes did not have an Oriental slant.' Even though they do not touch and do not speak, Joncour, a true romantic, falls instantly in love with this strange and beautiful girl and comes to believe that his love is returned, although by his fourth and final trip to Japan, he does resign himself to the fact that she will remain forever out of his reach. Civil was in Japan has torn Hara Kei's village apart and Joncour returns to Lavilledieu and to his faithful and loving wife Hélène, resigned that 'in the whole world there was nothing beautiful left.' Now a wealthy man, Joncour settles down to life in Lavilledieu with Hélène util the arrival of a letter, posted in Belgium, arrives. Written entirely in Japanese, Joncour believes it looks 'like a catalogue of the footprints of little birds, fantastically meticulous in its compilation.' When the letter is finally translated, Joncour learns the earth-shattering truth, truth he should have known all along, and his life, as well as the lives of others, are shown to be nothing more than a heart-breaking string of missed opportunities and the vulnerability of assumptions. What is most powerful in Silk is not what is said, but what is left unsaid. The book is highly stylized and enigmatic. We are never given any details about Hara Kei's concubine, Joncour's journeys to the East, or Hélène's feelings about her husband. Yet, I find I must disagree with those reviewers who criticized the book as containing little character development. I felt the characters were developed most excellently and by the book's end, I felt I had come to know most of them and was certainly able to identify with their plight. And, although the writing is lyrical, with strong undercurrents of eroticism throughout, it is both ephemeral and spare. It is most definitely prose and not poetry. Much in this book is reiterative narration, leading us to believe that nothing that happens in Japan upsets the calm day-to-day existence of Joncour and his wife in Lavilledieu. Even late in his life, Joncour spends his days 'with a liturgy of habits that succeeded in warding off sadness.' Silk is a small, slim book, but one that packs a lifetime of experience between its covers. It is a stylistic tour de force, a haunting haiku, and a heart-breaking allegory of life as a quest, ultimately unfulfilled. In short, it is a masterpiece of love and loss that is well worth reading time and time again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

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    Posted October 27, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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