Stoned by Aja Raden
This distinctive book makes for a fascinating read. In a heady mix of history, psychology and insider knowledge of the jewellery trade, Raden sets out “to understand history through the lens of desire”. The result is a collection of jewellery-related historical vignettes loosely strung together along a psychological thread: why humans want, why they take and why they possess.
We race backwards and forwards in time, from the purchase of Manhattan island for glass beads in 1626 to the 1947 “Diamonds Are Forever” advertising campaign, to the start of the Spanish Inquisition of 1478 – in that order. We visit Tudor England, the court of pre-revolutionary France and Russia and the oyster beds of early 20th century Japan. It’s a roller-coaster ride with each story told with a winning combination of wit and polished prose.
The strength of this book is the story-telling ability of the author. Stoned is a page-turner as finely crafted as any thriller, and I found it very difficult to put the book down. You may well find yourself wanting to know more about the historical episodes described, and the psychological motivations discussed. Raden covers a lot of ground with a light touch and a winning turn of phrase.
Where the book is at its weakest is in not letting historical accuracy get in the way of a ripping jewellery yarn. For example, I found it hard to believe that Elizabeth I (one of the most intelligent English monarchs of all time) committed herself to a high-risk piracy policy and, ultimately, war, due to unresolved sibling rivalry with her late sister and jealousy over a pearl she couldn’t have. Raden pointedly couldn’t back up her theory with any other source – and there are a lot of other sources about Elizabeth’s reign.
Another flaw is Raden’s tendency to over-italicise the words that she wants to emphasise. I found this irritating after a while and the technique doesn’t let up. The whole effect is a little breathless and unnecessarily exhausting. But these are minor niggles. Stoned is a book that will leave you on a high.