Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
It is thought that Crewel embroidery is at least a thousand years old. The origin of the word itself is lost, but is presumed to have meant a single strand of wool. The fact that Gennifer Albin chooses to use this word as the title to her book is just the first in a string of painfully obvious name choices she makes during the course of her terribly uninspired narrative. If Crewel is one of this year’s most anticipated YA releases, it is because more has been spent on promotion than on editing.
The premise is a strange, unappealing mix of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and the Loom of Fate concept from the Hollywood movie Wanted (already a terrible crutch that did not exist in the source comics). Crewel takes place in a world called Arras (which means tapestry — again, unsubtle for reasons revealed later) which is run by the tyrannical Guild, a group of male bureaucrats who control everything from births, deaths and marriages to city planning, food rationing and the weather. The Guild tests teenage girls for their ability to ‘weave’ time and space: it seems that some of the women in Arras can create life via ‘looms’ where the literal fabric of time is strung together in strands and can be altered by these ‘Spinsters’ (because spinsters weave, knit, crochet — see the unsubtlety?).
Imagine the looms as a sort of Google Earth screen, but made of threads of time and space instead of electronic pixels, with ‘code’ punched in to bring up the desired piece of weave/space/time/Arras. No one knows why this power is only a possibility in women, but the Guild have managed to control all the Spinsters who weave time by locking them up in the Coventry and telling them exactly what to do.
The most powerful of the weavers is the Creweler, one who can weave time without the use of a loom at all: a woman who is able to see the fabric of time all around her (because don’t forget, this world is Arras — a tapestry!). The Creweler Loricel (the book is full of strange, unfriendly names) is the only one who stands up to the Guild, but seems to be fighting a lost war. Much is made of how the Creweler does not answer to the Guild, but she somehow never poses a serious threat — she silently glowers at members of the Guild at best, yet continues to create the world of Arras as they see fit.
Here start the list of ‘whys’ that Crewel brings up: why, if only women have the power to create and control life, are they controlled by a bunch of autocratic men? Why, if they are able to simply ‘remove’ people from existence by plucking a thread out of a loom, are they allowing themselves to be treated as minions? Why, furthermore, are they not in control of their own destinies but instead are entirely manipulated by a system set up by despotic, abusive men? They are ‘kept’ women, in a way that brings to mind geishas or high-end escorts — a disturbingly large amount of time is wasted describing their “flawless” cosmetics, “milky white paint [spread] across my face and set ... with powder”. Luxurious clothing that “leaves nothing to the imagination” is frequently worn to “Guild dinner parties” where the Spinsters expect to be “mobbed and eaten alive by fat old men,” as the officials “drool over the new girls” while their wives jealously sit around and watch with “venom”. Why would women with the power to weave life allow themselves to be treated this way, as if they had no agency of their own? In all the Spinsters in the Coventry, is there really only one who wishes for change?
This agent of change is Albin’s protagonist Adelice, which means noble, a name unfriendly on the tongue, were Albin not trying so hard to find unsubtle names in general. She is a teenager whose parents have trained her to hide her incredible abilities because they wish for her to remain with them (even though just a year or so later she will have to marry and move away as per standard Arras regulations to be “the perfect Western woman — attractive, groomed, and obedient”). But Adelice cannot deny her true nature and is taken away to be trained at the Coventry where she is soon established as both the most desired and the most talented of all the Spinsters. Albin wants Adelice to be that perfect blend of feisty rebel with world-changing talent but instead she is flat, dull and incredibly annoying. Thrusting her into an unnecessary love triangle doesn’t help either, since the entire setup feels forced and unbelievable. But her ability to annoy is welcome, since it is her only defining feature.
To use Albin’s own terminology, there are many strands in Crewel’s weave that are either loose or simply falling apart. Adelice’s parents attempt to hide her and make her run away when she is selected by the Guild but what is the point of this when each person can be isolated and identified by the Spinsters? Her father burns a brand into her wrist to “help you remember who you are” but this brand has no significance whatsoever later. The Guild is constantly evolving techniques of “mind-mapping” or behavioural modifications in all citizens including Spinsters, using this as a threat to control the weavers. But since it was a Spinster who created and controls the world, why doesn’t she simply remove the offending despots?
The Fates of many ancient mythologies were three women: one wove, one measured and one cut the thread of every life, controlling the first and final moments in every single life. They were important women, powerful and respected by the gods. Albin has destroyed the image of these weavers in Crewel by creating female characters that are incapable of change or power.
As an avid reader of contemporary YA fiction, I personally find Crewel offensive. For a writer to presume that an average YA reader — young adult or otherwise — will enjoy the clichéd elements of love triangles, ludicrously impractical fashion, secret kisses at balls or embittered step-mother stereotypes, is to insult today’s YA readership.
By Gennifer Albin
Faber & Faber