1001 books, Alessandro Baricco, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 104  pages; 1997. Translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman.

Alessandro Baricco’s Silk is a powerful and erotic tale that reveals how one man’s desire threatens to ruin his life.

It is 1861 and Hervé Joncour is a silk breeder from France happily married to the beautiful Helene. Compelled to travel illegally to Japan alone in search of disease-free silkworms, Hervé comes across a “girl who does not have oriental eyes” and, despite not exchanging one word with her, falls deeply in love.

Over the course of several years, Hervé continues to make return trips to Japan in order to buy more silkworms and to lay his eyes on the beautiful and intriguing woman to whom he has become enthralled.

When the woman gives him a note that reveals her love for him, Hervé finds his life in France unravelling as he becomes more obsessed with the woman at “the end of the earth”. He channels his frustrations into building a beautiful park in the grounds of his home and takes his wife on exotic holidays to hide his unhappiness.

When a second erotically charged letter arrives from his lover he is distraught by the contents, for while it professes love and devotion, it also warns Hervé to never seek contact with her again…

In the style of an old-fashioned fable, Baricco has crafted a beautiful and mesmerising novella. Some of the chapters are so short they read more like poems, which greatly adds to the charm and mystique of the story. The writing is hypnotic, repetitive and deeply affecting.

I read this book in under an hour and was incredibly moved by the love affair. And the shock ending left me stunned, so I wasn’t quite sure if I had fully understood what had happened: had I read too much into it?

Ultimately, this is an astonishing piece of writing. Heart-breaking, bewitching and passionate.

‘Silk’, by Alessandro Baricco, first published in 1996, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it states the story is set in 1861, the year “when Flaubert was writing Salammbo, electricity was still only a future project, and on the other side of the ocean, Lincoln was engaged in a Civil War”.

11 thoughts on “‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco”

  1. Dipali, yes, I hunted this one out because of your recommendation but also because it’s on the booklist for the Australian Readers Challenge which I’m participating in.
    Mae, sure you will love it – a gentle, lilting read.


  2. I also recently read this. I felt sort of so-so about it. The writing was wonderful, though. I sort of liked the ending–it was nice how it came as such a surprise for such a slim little volume.


  3. Dear Sirs
    I am composer of classical music and I am 12
    (I was born 8 March 1994).
    Please, for me, it is necessary email address or
    website of Alesandro Baricco.
    Your faithfully
    Djuza Radojicic


  4. This book is like a music. Constantly repeated phrases and consecutive passases of it are simiral in riff(or refrain) to the music. Obviously, its magical components are most distinguish characteristics of this novel.
    I’m deeply moved like when I read Christophe Bataille’s ‘Annam’, and I shall expect the François Girard’s film.


  5. I also thought I had read too much into when I finished. I went back and re-read the last few hapters. But over all, it was a great book for how short it was.


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