Saturday, April 25, 2015

Stitching together Thessaloniki's story

The Thread by Victoria Hislop


During the 20th Century, the seaside Greek city of Thessaloniki saw it all – fires, wars and earthquakes. This is the backdrop of Victoria Hislop’s novel The Thread. In it, we get to know the story of this city through a fictional cast of characters. As the book opens, Katerina and Dmitri’s grandson has come to visit. He asks them why they still live in this city, since their children and their families are all in England or the USA. The answer to his question is the story of these two people and this special city.

Novelist Hislop loves the Mediterranean, and in each of her novels, she brings her readers into the hearts of her chosen locations. To do this, she weaves a web of characters into the histories of these places. This is even more of a perfect metaphor for “The Thread” since her female protagonist Katerina is a seamstress. But Katerina doesn’t just sew dresses; she creates wearable works of art. As for Dmitri – his father is the successful owner of a company that imports and sells fabrics.

While this may sound like an easy set-up for these two to meet, Hislop doesn’t take the obvious route. She begins her tale with the city’s disastrous fire of 1917. This is just when Dmitri is just born and what forces his mother to move into a very poor neighborhood. Katerina, on the other hand, was born near Smyrna (known as Izmir, today), Turkey and ends up in Thessaloniki as a refugee. She ends up in the same neighborhood and so the stage is set. Of course, at that stage, the two are still very young children. This is what allows Hislop to tell their story, in parallel with the history of the city. This takes us through World War II and through to the earthquake of 1978.

Such a vast backdrop makes for a story whose long timeline is close to epic proportions. So while 400 pages isn’t a short novel, it could have been much longer. The key to writing a successful story with such scope is balance. This means that the historical aspects shouldn’t overcrowd the characters, or the other way around. To a certain extent, Hislop succeed in this, but not completely.

Where Hislop does succeed is in getting us to empathize with most of her characters. Certainly, we care about Katerina and all she goes through. This starts the minute we find her fleeing from the Turks. But soon after this, the focus seems to widen to other characters. For instance, there’s Eugenia, the woman with the twin daughters who becomes the de facto guardian of Katerina when she’s separated from her mother.
 
There’s also the Moreno family – the Jews that own the clothing workshop who Katerina becomes neighbors with. Of course, without Dmitry, there is no continuation of the story. But as soon as his wealthy father moves him and his mother away from Katerina and into their mansion, there is a split in focus. In this way, Hislop separates the two stories of these main characters, with the greater emphasis on Katerina. This isn’t actually as problematic as it sounds, and not at all confusing, with some sidelined characters, and others that fade in and out of the foreground. This can be partially forgiven since otherwise, the book would probably need to be twice as long.

Where Hislop seems to have partially lost the balance is in the history. On the one hand, her readers need to understand what’s going on around these characters. Without that, certain motivations and actions don’t make sense. It also helps with the climax of the story. After you’ve read the whole book, you’ll certainly feel that you know a good deal about this special city. However, there are sections that feel like you’re reading a history book, albeit a nicely written. There are also places where politics are described that border on the preachy. These sometimes break the flow of the story, and could easily have been edited down. Thankfully, Hislop does write in an engaging fashion so that these passages remain at least partially entertaining.

Overall, Hislop gives us sympathetic characters in an almost exotic part of the world. She also tells this story on the backdrop of the many upheavals that completely changed this city’s character. This combination had the potential for being a truly amazing epic. The problem is that parts of this novel are slightly unbalanced in terms of character focus. As for the extraneous historical background, readers might choose to skim over some of those sections. If so, they won’t be missing much. Considering all this, I’ll recommend this novel and give it a solid three and a half stars out of five.
 

"The Thread" by Victoria Hislop is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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