Sunday, 15 July 2012

Review: The Thread by Victoria Hislop

A fascinating historical narrative rescues Victoria Hislop’s latest novel from its somewhat two-dimensional characters and inconsistent prose style, making it ideal beach reading.

The plot loosely focuses around the developing relationship between Dimitri, a rebellious son of a wealthy merchant, and Katerina, a talented semi-orphaned seamstress, which unfolds across the first half of the twentieth century in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.  Their eventual fate is not left in doubt as they are married in the twenty-first century prologue, which means our interest is always chiefly concerned with the history of the city itself, in a manner that might remind readers of Edward Rutherfurd.

Like (I suspect) many British readers, my knowledge of the Thessalonians is limited to the biblical letters they received.  As such, the main pleasure of Hislop’s work is fascinating story of the city’s three decades of crisis, from the Great Fire of 1917 to the civil war of the late 1940s – all topics which seem to have completely eluded the British curriculum-makers.

This turbulent city is populated by a broad range of characters, and Hislop is at her best when she lets her cast be buffeted by history.  It is notable that there are no heroes here – the characters who fight openly confess their own crimes; those who stay at home suffer quietly rather than struggling – but that allows the events themselves to come to the fore.  An ignorance of Greek history might even be an advantage, as the endless succession of catastrophes can shock the reader just as it does the fictional Thessalonians.

Hislop is less successful as she strays away from documented events.  Dimitri is curiously under-developed, with his key shift from his father’s cruel capitalist ideology to a philanthropic brand of communism triggered only by realising the existence of poor people, and never subsequently developed.  The villains are even shallower: Dimitri’s father a pantomime villain, while a scene where a grotesquely overweight man dies while having sex is as clichéd as it is grotesque.

Nonetheless these cracks are not wide enough to ruin the pleasure of the novel, especially when we follow the enchanting Katerina, who is certainly the strongest character by far as she makes her way using her natural aptitude as a seamstress.  To continue the metaphor which the novel engages in, Hislop has created a masterful tapestry, just so long as you don’t poke too closely at the stitches.

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