Once, there was a girl who loved saffron. She loved its secrets, its mystery, and best of all, she loved its hint of magic.
After the death of her beloved mother, Nell travels from rural Cornwall to the colour and chaos of Marrakech. Her marriage may be on the rocks, but exploring the heady delights of Moroccan cuisine could help her fulfil her dream of opening her own restaurant.
It’s there she meets Amy – a young photographer trying to unravel the story behind her family’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The two women develop a close friendship and discover a surprising connection between their own pasts.
The Saffron Trail mainly follows the tangled lives of Nell and Amy but there are also a host of supporting characters who get their own voice, such as Lilian and Glenn, who we meet in the present and the past. These characters are connected in a mysterious way, however there is a predictability to the story which makes it easy to work out despite the fact Ley tries to keep the secrets going for as long as possible. The book is quite slow in parts, mainly because the author imparts a lot of background information on her characters but I’m not sure it was really essential and it just increases your chances of working out how they are all connected.
Nell and Amy are both likeable characters, and I enjoyed reading about their evolving friendship even though they were very different in personality. When she first arrives in Morocco, Nell is feeling lost because her grief is making her doubt her future and putting a strain on her marriage. Although Nell’s presence in Morocco is mainly down to the cookery course, she is also hoping it will provide her with some answers to her mother’s past but I failed to understand how since, as far as Nell knew, her mother had never been in Morocco. The tenuous link is the saffron her mother loved but since the spice has been growing in England for centuries, why would Nell assume there was a Moroccan connection at all? It would’ve made more sense to me if Nell had been aware her mother had spent some time in Morocco during her youth.
As it happens, what Nell does find is a renewed purpose and a determination to pursue her dream of running her own restaurant, with or without her husband’s support. Nell evolves more than any other character as she gains her independence, however, just as she is about to achieve her goals, the rug is pulled from under her feet in more ways than one. Fortunately, the new improved Nell is able to cope with adversity far better than the old Nell would’ve, and eventually she is the one who is keeping everyone else going.
Just like Nell, Amy is also at a crossroads but it mainly concerns her love life or rather the lack of it. Although Amy seems like a strong woman, she is actually quite vulnerable and yearns for more than the casual romance she has been having with Duncan, her gallery boss. When Jake Tarrant arrives as the events manager for the Moroccan exhibition, Amy is immediately attracted to him but it also makes her wary enough to keep pushing him away. The romance between Amy and Jake really isn’t given much room to breathe because Amy’s primary focus is on finding out what happened to Glenn so I didn’t feel much chemistry there. Needless to say, Amy’s prickly attitude towards Jake causes all sorts of miscommunications but I really wasn’t that invested in it.
Nell and Amy’s story is interwoven with that of Lilian and Glen which inevitably takes us back to different times in history, such as the Second World War and the Vietnam era. While this is a fascinating insight into two different eras at war, I’m not sure if it was all necessary and some of it was tedious. Seeing Morocco from two different times would’ve been fascinating but Glenn and his friends didn’t seem to do anything but smoke grass in their riad. Most of the passages about Glenn are more introspective in nature, giving us an insight into who he was and why he made some of the decisions he made.
The best part of the story for me is undoubtedly the Moroccan setting and Ley does an impressive job of describing it all in detail. From the moment Amy and Nell first set foot in the place, we are subjected to a riot of smells, sounds and colours which all bring the place to life. Unlike Glenn, we see Amy and Nell interacting with the locals and discovering the richness of Moroccan culture for themselves and it just enriches the whole experience. The story of saffron and its many uses is also fascinating, and it is not hard to understand why it is more valuable than gold since it takes 140 flowers to produce just one gram of the stuff.