The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

By Claire North

Death and rebirth have been subjects that have interested people for as far back as we can remember; Religions around the world are based on them. Claire North explores these themes in her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

I was drawn to this book because I thought it was going to be about a man who is born, lives, dies then is reborn into another body in another year. However, it is about a man who is born New Year’s Eve 1918 and is reborn, after every death, on exactly the same day and in exactly the same circumstances. The thing that differs is his knowledge. In each new life, at around school age, he remembers the previous life and therefore uses this acquired information in a variety of ways to suit his needs. Some of his choices have better outcomes than others and occasionally he is forced to take his own life. Each new life is an ongoing adventure for Harry.

The book begins with a very short chapter comprising of an unusual conversation between Harry at seventy eight on his death bed and a seven year old girl. In an adult tone she relays an important message to and through Harry: The world is ending.

Apart from the obvious and his intelligence (most of which is gained from his memory of previous lives), Harry is an unremarkable guy living in unremarkable circumstances. He has family issues like the rest of us and, in general, doesn’t seem like the most interesting man although he does seem to have a dark sense of humour. The catalyst for Harry to step out of his rather boring life is his visit from this young girl. This provides him with a purpose and allows us to see what type of person he really is when pushed to the extreme.

Claire writes with great detail and fluidity. She seems to have done her research as the book is filled with references about World War 1, Russia and science, to name but a few. She’s created character well, showing us how people are through their actions.

‘… a Mrs Mason, a cheerful, rose-faced woman who could crack a chicken’s neck between thumb and forefinger and who didn’t believe in this new-fangled NHS business, not when there were gooseberries in the garden and rosehip cordial in the kitchen cupboard.’ (P197)

The story jumps between lives but does have structure so it’s not too confusing. What is interesting, apart from the main story line, is how Harry behaves in each of his lives. How he changes some of the things he does or how he doggedly sticks to some actions. It’s intriguing to the reader to not only see what it could be like to be reborn but to examine fate and question if we can really change the events of our lives if we choose or had chosen an alternate path.

This book was definitely worth a read. And with clearly an intelligent and talented author, I will be keeping a look out for her other novel Touch.

The Moaning of Life

The Moaning of Life

By Karl Pilkington

Karl Pilkington is a simple guy with some interesting thoughts and quotes. Whether you are watching him being berated by Ricky Gervais or reading one of his 6 books, you will be struck by his complex straightforwardness. I find him fascinating while his intelligence, stupidity and insightfulness flummoxes me. The main reason is because he is a successful writer and producer. Not that I want to be mean, on the contrary, but after watching and reading Karl’s thoughts I wonder how he ended up where he is now.

He’s not interested in travel and likes to live modestly, so why has he travelled around the globe and put himself in the arena for potential fame and ridicule? Was it the force known as Ricky who shoved Karl on a plane and gave him terrible tasks to do just to be annoying or did Karl deep down want to see some of the world.   Maybe Karl just though it would be a good little earner? Whatever it was he’s grabbed this bull by the horns and continued travelling and writing books including The Moaning of Life.

Written plainly with a northern twang The Moaning of Life is set out into sections with a witty introduction clearly stating his lack of interest in fuss and surprises and allowing us a little insight into his confusions at traditions like marriage and having children. Simply named the headings are: Marriage, Kids, Vocation and Money, Happiness and Death. We follow Karl as he travels the world partaking in these everyday occurrences in life.

Marriage sees Karl exploring the concepts of matchmaking and marriage. He works as a wedding planner for an Indian family and observes a couple who marry in Vegas in a laundrette. They exchange dirty clothes and wash them, therefore beginning the marriage on a clean slate while accepting that there may be less pleasant times or habits which one has to accept. During his involvement in wedding ceremonies and meeting the people involved Karl offers his point of view.

I find it odd that we’ve named it the ‘ring finger’. It just goes to show that we have too many fingers. I reckon we’d get by okay if we had lobster hands.’ P12

A typical Karl comment.

Kids begins with an excellent explanation as to why he doesn’t want offspring – it’s actually quite sweet really. Karl is in a hotel and there is a knock at the door, he’s nervous about letting the person in as he is hiding something in his room. He answers the door and he’s relieved it’s just the director and not the hotel staff. Karl says he’s knackered as he hasn’t slept then he shows the director the problem: a turtle in the bath.

Karl has rescued a turtle from a street market in Tokyo. Unfortunately, in a Karl-like manner, he hasn’t thought it through. He has decided to keep it in the bath, but was so concerned the turtle would strangle itself with the plug chain Karl stayed awake to make sure it was safe. He sees this as proof that he shouldn’t have children. He thinks if he’s worrying about a turtle that much then what would he be like with a child? He’s got a point. Like he says:

‘Having kids is the biggest decision you have to make in life, cos once you’ve had one, you can’t send it back.’ P86

Karl opens the Vocation and Money section by saying:

‘I left school with no qualifications worth speaking of, and the only work experience I’d had was playing a shepherd in the Christmas nativity play,’ p147

I find this inspiring. I bet he’d never think he’s an inspirational guy, but I like that he is who he is; he hasn’t come from a position of privilege yet he has a successful career. From a shepherd to producer and writer. I wonder if he sees it that way?

Happiness is a strange (or should I say stranger) section. Karl meets people who hang themselves, by their skin, from hooks; people who get happy by exercising and others seeking happiness though dancing. Now, here is one activity Karl always seems to enjoy. For someone who doesn’t like a fuss made of them because it’s embarrassing he clearly has music in his veins because if there’s an opportunity to dance he doesn’t need asking twice and without a moan he’s up and moving. During this chapter Karl even gets into the swing of cosmetic surgery.

The book ends (obviously and aptly) with Death where Karl experiences funerals, mourning and the dead. On such a dark subject Karl manages to lighten the mood. On moving a body he says:

‘It’s hard to describe the chaos, but just imagine the Chuckle Brothers trying to shift a mattress.’ P312

His description provides us with an all too clear image. He isn’t disrespectful, even though it may sound like it. He admits he has limited emotions and through the book you do get a detached sense of Karl amongst the world. This is probably why his insights and comments can be taken without too much upset because he always seems a little removed to mean any harm plus his honest thoughts and simplicity of style allows him to slide under the radar of reprimands because telling him off would be like scolding a Labrador.

This brief look into the book and unusual mind of Karl Pilkington will hopefully make you want to read some of his writing. It’s an entertaining, funny, light read and for those who have never heard of him you will be shaking your head as you delve into the Pilkington mind. Perfect for this festive period when some escapism is required.

Small Island

Small Island
By Andrea Levy

Last Christmas my writing group had a fabulous social gathering. As part of the literature theme of the evening (although I think wine was the main focus) we, the guests, had been asked to bring a book we wanted to share with others. However, I’d somehow missed the email and I had no book to impose on my companions. Luckily for me the group was kind and they handed me a spare paperback called Small Island. On first glance I thought it was a tad too large for my bag, but I said thanks and gratefully took it home.

After reading the YA fiction trilogy Matched I came to Small Island and I’m so glad I did. On the books first opening I was intrigued to find a postcard with a hilly landscape sketch on it. On its reverse was a written explanation as to why this anonymous person had provided this book. Here is a sample:

‘I do hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. It was important to me in helping me to understand more about the England I grew up in – I was born in 1940. We lived in rural Somerset, so I had very little idea about the larger patterns of social change in the UK.’

Small Island is set during WW2 and after in its period of recovery. We are taken into the heads and lives of the four main characters: (English) Queenie and Bernard and (Jamaican) Hortense and Gilbert.

We explore societal and personal relationships. We see how Hortense and Gilbert, who have longed to make a life in England as a lawyer and a teacher, encounter racism and prejudice. We observe the change in society as the war finishes and cultures and races mix. I found it shocking and fascinating at the open levels of racist abuse and the more subtle, underlying, accepted racism and perceived superiority at being white and British. Although, one hears of how people were treated it’s quite difficult comprehend. I think this book goes a little way to assisting the understanding of how black people, specifically Jamaicans, who were fighting for the Britain, were treated.

Andrea Levy writes so beautifully and easily, capturing the heart of personal and intimate moments through the most banal of daily tasks. On Bernard’s return from war we see both his and his wife’s struggle at getting back to ‘normality’.

‘“Took me a while to find the teapot,’ he told me. ‘Not where it usually is.”’ p435

Levy doesn’t skip the detail of daily lives and I think it’s this that draws us in and provides us with the essence of each character. We see how they perform on a day-to-day basis both in solitary mode and in company; we examine how they live and how they respond.

Each moment and event is perfectly crafted with her insightful words. During war she evokes in our minds the struggle and bizarreness that the men found themselves in with beautiful simplicity.

‘The relief had the whole trench sighing as one man.’ P346

And

‘Chap looked about eighty. We all did, with our pantomime aging of dust.’ P347

With Levy’s excellent prose I was taken on a journey of discovery where I held tight to the note on the postcard. It felt like a treasure that someone else had experienced something great in this book and now I was too. I kept this unidentified message inside the book during reading. It felt personal. I hope it remains with the book when I pass it on as it definitely added an unexpected dimension to my reading experience.

Read this book and if you’re lucky you may come across this magical copy.

A Creative Day

A Creative Day

Quote: “Creativity comes to those who don’t plan.”

Sometimes you have a day of writing planned or you have organised a trip to an exhibition, but sometimes a creative day comes at you from nowhere.

Easter Cakes

I was looking after a couple of girls for the day; one was imprisoned (self-imposed) in her room studiously revising for her exams and the other was 9, so we could do what we wanted. I had nothing scheduled but I knew 2 things: 1, we were going to the cinema later to see a subtitled film about Laos and 2, I needed a coffee.

After a catch up interspersed with readings and giggles from Calvin and Hobbs, we began discussing books and writing and I said I love Choose Your Own Adventure. The girl replied, “I have one but haven’t done it for ages.” So she ran to get it and there began our morning of rolling dice, battling creatures and pointing swords at old crones. This book was a little more advanced than the ones I used to read where you only got the option at the bottom as to what page to turn to next; this one was more suitable to Sheldon and the boys in The Big Bang Theory. It had need for a pen, some paper and dice (but if you didn’t have any then cleverly there was a picture of them at the bottom of the page so you could flick the pages and that was your ‘roll’). You could also buy things such as the Armband of Strength and the Headband of Concentration as well as potions and weapons. Once we’d left our morals at the door, entered a pretty useless waterfall cave and riled numerous creatures we decided to pause while still alive and go for a coffee.

Phew! We were parched after such an adventurous morning. Refuelling took place at Lavish Habit in Balham for a cappuccino and a hot chocolate. Next was the collation of materials for the afternoon’s events: Easter cake baking. Yay!

We baked and decorated like elves making toys at Christmas. Our cakes had carrots half buried in the middle so it looked like it was in a garden, Easter eggs, rabbit faces, flowers and colourful sprinkles. What was nice was teaching the 9 year old how to pipe icing, make carrots and create flowers – although I gave up on teaching not to lick your fingers whilst making the cake as it was a losing battle.

Easter Cake 2

I had a lovely time doing my favourite things. Then she took me outside to so something she liked: archery! A Katniss fan (Hunger Games) she had a bow and sucker arrows to fire at will in the garden. Time out to kick ass in the garden was fun, but short lived as we had to speed off to the Ritzy Cinema, Brixton.

We were seeing The Rocket, a foreign language film with subtitles. (SPOILER ALERT!) Set in Laos, ten year old Ahlo is a surviving twin who is said, by his grandmother, to bring bad luck. This film sees his journey to shedding his bad luck by entering the Rocket Festival: a dangerous competition where entrants compete to win money and to hopefully bring rain.

The films primary focus is on the unexploded bombs dropped on the country by the Americans during the Vietnam War. We see how the bombs have affected the villages and the lives of the villagers and also how outside influences end up determining the locals lives.

Director Kim Mordaunt shoots the film in a documentary style using a lot of non-actors and only a little direction to give a natural feel. The film is thoughtful and beautifully shot capturing poignant images of Ahlo, moving the cinema-goers to tears. Although subtitled there are actually very few and of the ones there are the text is limited, making it easy for the younger viewer to keep up with. There are a few hard hitting and shocking scenes which serve as a reminder to the existing danger these children and their families are still in. By using a Laotian boy as the protagonist Mordaunt hits home this point.

The end of the film is much like the rest but with a smack of sentimentalism. The Rocket Festival serves to stick one finger up at the bombs by firing explosives back into the skies and making a positive out of a negative. The end might perhaps do better to remind us that not everything will turn out well like in the movies. However, it’s a good film absolutely worth seeing and taking your older children to.

If only everyday was this enjoyable. Hopefully in the future I will remember to put some of my more mundane and unimportant tasks aside to allow for more creativity in my life and those around me.

Matched Trilogy

Matched

By Ally Condie

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Dystopian Young Adult fiction has been doing the rounds for a while and is getting even bigger with The Hunger Games now being made into a series of films.  Matched, set somewhere in the future, follows a trilogy format and has been written specifically for this style.  Although it’s possible to read each independently I don’t think you would get the best out of the books.

We follow the thoughts and travels of Cassia, a 17 year old girl who is due to be ‘matched’ to her future husband at the extravagant and much awaited Match Banquet.  The Society record and measure their citizens to provide the best life possible for them – from calorie controlled meals, whom to marry, to the time you should die.  All of the results are collated and your life is predicted and controlled accordingly.  Cassia’s match has been carefully chosen to suit her (and his) needs perfectly.

Everyone including Cassia enjoys the structure of their daily lives and respects the order and expectations because it leads to a healthier, productive, happier society.

After the joyous Match Banquet, where in a rare occurrence Cassia is matched with Xavier – her best friend who lives in her district – Cassia is presented with an event which changes the course of her life.  Each person matched receives a Microcard with information about their future partner on it.  On viewing her Microcard, Cassia is momentarily presented with another face – Ky, another boy from her district.  Throwing everything into question, Cassia is confused: the Society doesn’t make mistakes.  Cassia loves Xavier and is relieved and thrilled to be matched to him – it’s meant to be, it’s been predicted.  However, Ky’s face won’t remove itself from her mind and this begins a slow change in her perception of the Society and even herself.

As the story unravels we, along with Cassia, discover the deeper workings of the Society and become aware of just what they’re capable of.  Without giving too much away, the end is the start of Cassia’s search for her future and the truth and the beginning of the next book.

As an adult I enjoyed this book and I feel it suits the YA age group. A lot of books are called ‘cross-over’ but have an adult voice – and although this does house adult concepts and the occasional word you wouldn’t expect a teenager to use (it can be forgiven because of the futuristic environment) you do still feel it’s a teenager speaking.  Cassia goes on a journey and like most teenagers moving into adulthood we see her opening her eyes and becoming aware of the world as a whole and not just her own little, egocentric bubble.  Although the protagonist is a teenager it doesn’t matter because the concepts of conspiracy theories, society’s control, love etc. are ones which draw us all in.  All you adults out there don’t restrict yourself to books with people of a similar age, sex and ethnicity to you – it’s limiting and a bit boring too.  I just like reading and am happy to devour any book that comes my way and if I don’t like it then it doesn’t matter – you can’t like everything but how do you know if you don’t try?

Crossed and Reached are the next books in this trilogy and I look forward to reading and reviewing them too.

World Book Day with Mr Benn

Quote: “nothing exciting ever happens to me,” Mr Benn.

Mr Benn

With World Book Day Thursday 6th March I thought I’d take on a children’s classic: Mr Benn – Red Knight by David McKee. I acquired a copy from a child I look after and she eyed me with suspicion when I asked to borrow it. I made sure I said ‘borrow’. She said yes but reminded me it was a very special book (as if I didn’t know); I have read it to her loads. But why have I read it to her loads? This tale was first published in 1967 and this girl is 6. So what makes it rise above contemporary stories?

The story goes like this:

Mr Benn, a suited man in a bowler hat, is invited to a fancy dress party. He goes to a fancy dress shop and chooses a red suit of armour to try on. In the changing room there is a second door which leads him into another world. In this world he meets a dragon who used to light the fires for the king but was banished after a matchmaker came to the town. The matchmaker wants to get rich selling his matches so sets a barn on fire and tells everyone it was the dragon. At the same time the king’s horse runs away which makes the king think the dragon has something to do with it (why? I don’t know). The dragon says the horse is living near him but he was too scared to return it to the king.

After telling Mr Benn of his woes he (Mr Benn) rides off on the horse to the castle to explain. The King punishes the matchmaker by imprisoning him in the dungeon and forcing him to make free matches for the people while the dragon returns as the king’s personal firelighter.

Mr Benn has sorted all the problems and returns to the changing room. He decides he’s too tired for the party after all and goes home to dream about all the other adventures he might have.

Mr Benn and the dragon

The idea is genius. It lends itself to vast numbers of adventures for Mr Benn and therefore numerous books and, as we know, television programmes too. The concept of dressing up is a great one for children – they completely understand dressing up and can get to grip with that concept immediately. It crosses the boundary into the wilds of their imagination whilst maintaining a safe familiarity.

An equally important part of this book (and my favourite) is the illustrations. Line drawings, which are akin to doodles, are alternated with bright, child-like, stylised paintings.

Mr Benn line drawing

Back to the text. When reading out loud to a child you’ll notice the difference in sentence length, structure and language. For example, one sentence I always trip over is:

‘The shop bell tinkled and as if by magic there was suddenly a strange little man, with a moustache and an odd hat, standing in front of Mr Benn.’

I think it is because I’m expecting a full stop after ‘tinkled’ and the next sentence to start ‘As if …’ The sentences do feel longer than the current books and the word usage is different too; words like: desolate, barren and triumphal procession are used. Today’s writers for children are told (by publishers and those in the know)to use language children understand and can potentially read without stumbling or wondering what on earth it means. I also feel when Mr Benn meets the dragon and hears of the dragon’s back story it is ‘telling’ rather than showing (which writers always get told off for) and it’s a long and slightly confusing backstory told like a story within a story. I think it would work better if it was told by the dragon and not by the narrator.

Mr Benn and the shops

However, what do I know? The story is popular and has been since 1967. This isn’t the first book from years ago that is still being, not just enjoyed, but loved by children; they don’t seem so confused by the language, they seem to take it in their stride and ask what ‘desolate’ means or understand that no one can possibly know all the words. Children don’t seem to care if they’re being ‘told’ a story either. I think they just want something that taps into their imagination and can take them on a jolly good romp. Hoorah! As Enid Blyton would write.

Line drawing of trees

Enjoy World Book Day! Let me know of your interesting reads.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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Based on general facts, Cathy Buchanan weaves the lives of three impoverished, fatherless sisters with that of criminality and art.

The van Goethem sisters live in Paris in the late 1800’s. Their mother: an absinthe drinking laundress is barely part of their lives. However, sunk in alcoholism there are tiny touches of sensitivity which hark back to a pre-absinth time. The eldest sister, Antoinette, fails at keeping her position at the Paris Opera Ballet due to her sharp tongue. But, she manages to get her younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte an audition and this is where the story begins.

During her time at the Paris Opera, Marie models for Degas who obsessively sketches her muscular legs and contorted, straining, emaciated body in various ballet poses. During this time he produces the wax sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Antoinette begins dating the sweet-talking Emile Abadie. These unrelated events become entwined and lead the sisters down darker paths.

Degas Passion and Intellect by Thames and HudsonDegas Passion and Intellect by Thames & Hudson

Buchanan explains that during this period Zola was arguing for scientific literature – presenting a deterministic view of human life. Degas sculptures and pastels pertain to Zola’s ideas that certain facial features hinted at a person’s innate criminality. Buchanan is interested in how this might have affected the life of a teenage model.

As the story plays out we see Abadie and his friend, Knobloch, accused of multiple murders. It is discussed that they both have ‘criminal’ faces. Marie begins to examine her own features, sees a similarity and wonders at her fate. Her destiny is determined when she becomes involved in the trial of these men and guilt begins to eat her up. When she visits the 6th Exposition of Independent Artists in 1881, where the sculpture of her is exhibited, she sees it is alongside Degas’s other work – a sketch, Criminal Physiognomies, and it propels her further into darkness. She believes her fate is written and she too will be a criminal; Marie descends into a spiral of self-destruction.

The story, written from the perspectives of Marie and Antoinette, is an intimate look at the relationship between the van Goethem sisters battling against their ‘predestined’ fates. Buchanan captures the sisterly tenderness and the fierce protectiveness felt between siblings and how it sits uniquely alongside spiteful comments and physical quarrels.

I enjoyed this book, mainly because of that intimate relationship and also because of my interest in Degas and Zola. My disappointment came mainly with the lack of a Parisian feel. I love Paris and reading Parisian novels, but although there were references to place, it didn’t capture the essence. I never really felt as if I was in Paris, it could have been three sisters placed anywhere. I wanted to feel the dirty, seductiveness of Paris in the 1800’s specifically on the art scene.

Overall, it was a good read, but not what I expected.

Through the Looking Glass

I’m ashamed to say that this reading of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was my first.  Blush!  Please don’t wait thirty-four years like me.  It is wonderful: funny, clever, imaginative and completely captures the child in you.

Through The Looking Glass 2

Some of the language would be considered too advanced for children by todays writing and publishing experts.  However, some of the trickier words are explained in the back of the book.  Parents and schools may think this is a great idea, but speak to anyone in the writing industry and they will say that the most important thing is to getting the child to read and enjoy books without having to stop and start and loose the thread of the story, which will lead to the child giving up on the book.   Anyway, we’re not talking children here, we’re talking adults.

Through the Looking Glass, originally published in 1871, it is the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  However, Looking Glass completely stands alone and it is not necessary to have read Wonderland.

Carroll begins this tale with a sleepy Alice who is fascinated by the potential of the world inside a vast mirror hanging over the fireplace.  She wonders at the differences of the other world, “I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just behind the fireplace.”  P12.  Intriguing!  Along with Kitty she ventures in and takes us on the journey with her.

One of the best things for me about this book was the craziness.  The characters are very matter-of-fact in their dialogue and they use words and language differently to Alice, “Feather!  Feather!’  the Sheep cried again,” p72.  We don’t really know what this means and never really find out.  “’Oh, please!  There are some scented rushes!’   Alice cried in a sudden transport of delight.  They really are –and  such beauties’!’ / ‘You needn’t say “please” to me about ‘em,’ the Sheep said, without looking up from her knitting: ‘I didn’t put ‘em there, and I’m not going to take ‘em away.’”  P73. Throughout the book we see how Alice’s polite English is not understood by the mirrors’ inhabitants.  It’s interesting to be shown in a children’s book how language is used, understood and misunderstood.

English and the way we use it is questioned throughout, for example, “’I see nobody on the road,’ said Alice. / ‘I only wish I had such eyes,’ the King remarked in a fretful tone.  ‘To be able to see Nobody!  And at the distance too!  Why it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!’” p94.

The story is short and you can nip through this book with some pace as its flows fantastically.  As an adult you really do want to find out what happens next and who will Alice will stumble upon.  It has a dream-like state which allows you to accept anything that happens.  So, when the Queen suddenly starts bleating and turns into an obsessively knitting sheep, you don’t even question it: you chuckle and romp on.

I absolutely recommend this book for all ages.  Please read it, it won’t take long and you’ll get so much out of it, especially if you are interested in writing and language.  There is so much more I could talk about in this little paperback, but I’m not going to ruin it for you.  The copy I was reading (and will probably read again) is, Collins Classics, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, 2010, Harper Collins.

The Thread Review

The Thread

 

Victoria Hislop’s, third novel, The Thread is an intimate tale of the lives of the people in Thessaloniki, Greece.   The tale deals with wider issues of war, politics and immigrants influencing this city and uses these to look more in depth at how individuals’ lives are affected.

 

The reader follows the life little Katerina after the Turkish army destroy her home in Asia Minor.  Her life is changed forever as she is forced to flee with nothing.  In Greece, Dimitri is born to a wealthy textiles owner.  But devastation shakes the community when an accidental fire ravages the city mixing the inhabitants and wiping out homes and businesses.  During this, Dimitri and Katerina’s lives are bound together forever.

 

Through poor Katerina we are exposed to an ever evolving community.  Dimitri’s life plays more of a political role and offers us access to the inner workings of the wealthy.  The community itself is one of contrasts and struggles; the tight-knit, multi-cultural working class never to be found with a closed door contrasts, yet co-exists, with the wealthy inhabitants, locked away in their mansions.

 

Hislop ties these people’s lives and relationships together through their continual struggles; some of which are self-imposed and some of which are cast so brutally upon them by both God and man.   Each character is a well written individual, yet is tied to the community and unified by their connection to Thessaloniki.

 

The Thread by Victoria Hislop

 

A thread is woven through this story with the modistra (seamstress), Katerina.  It weaves through a hard working Jewish family, wealthy Greeks, Muslims, friends, family, the rich and the poor.  Using what has traditionally been seen a female pursuit, the craft of sewing is used to tie the pieces of this community and story together.  This thread offers us an opportunity to see how characters utilize this skill: from domestic pleasure to purely commercial gain to hiding important secrets.

 

Hislop uses sewing in a similar way to Alice Walker’s Colour Purple and Tracey Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn.  The oppressed are brought together through a common craft and skill.  It is, more importantly, a support network.  The Colour Purple, for all its trauma and devastating events, uses this technique to offer the protagonist respite and a glimmer of light.  The companionship, support, a little piece of serenity, safety among female confidantes and a tiny bit of self-confidence at the completed job, are all positive elements which have been used throughout history to unite; now, these elements are being used to tell a story.

 

There is so much more to traditional crafts and Hislop is another writer who shows us just how important this seemingly insignificant past-time is.

 

The book’s not perfect: sometimes elements are a little over explained, but it’s definitely worth a read.  Not just for the story, but for its technique too.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and it’s pace makes it an easy page-turner.   It’s an entertaining, fascinating and even an educational read as Hislop’s historically factual details are mixed with fictional lives.