Coast Book Review
The Thread by Victoria Hislop
The most shocking thing I, a grateful beneficiary of New Zealand’s social progressiveness, learned from The Thread was that it was not until 1952 that women in Greece were given the vote. Political commentary is not the purpose of Victoria Hislop’s impressive third novel, but this datum gives a taste of the delights that may be found within its pages, which relate the events befalling residents of Thessaloniki between 1917 and the early 1960s.
Though Greek’s second-largest city, I would venture that little about Thessaloniki is widely known beyond Europe. At the time of the first world war, it was a place of remarkable and peaceful diversity, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived harmoniously side-by-side.
But things fell apart, beginning with tension between Turkey and Greece that devolved into war and a massive population exchange. Soon after came the rise of Nazi-driven anti-Semitism and the departure of many Jews from Thessaloniki, then the second world war and the round-up and exportation to Poland of those who remained.
Hislop’s story, fortunately, is not conveyed in quite such archly factual terms: she hews to the conventions of historical fiction by blending the lives of her front-of-stage characters, Katerina and Dimitri and their families, evenly against the backdrop of serious strife. It is much harder than it looks to knit small lives into history in a way that is plausible and affecting but free of melodrama, and she does so much more ably than many others.
The Thread opens with a prologue featuring Mitsos, the grandson of Dimitri and Katerina, who meet as children in a melting-pot neighbourhood of Thessaloniki. Katerina has fetched up there with Eugenia, a Pontic Greek who fled from Turkish nationalists and scooped up the little girl, lost to her mother in a crush of refugees, on her way. Dimitri is well-to-do, the son of distant, work-obsessed industrialist Konstantinos and loving Olga, driven to agoraphobia by her husband’s emotional cruelty. We know the two survive the upheavals of their youth and middle age, so Hislop foments suspense by packing her tale with suffering and strife on scales small and large.
First Leonidas, Konstantinos’ brother, and later Dimitri fight in defence of their country – the latter on the side of the Communists, a shooting offence at the time and the cause of estrangement between father and son. Elsewhere, Dimitri is caught up in a notorious police action against protestors that left 12 dead and triggered a dictatorship, while behind closed doors and in response to the German threat, a sewing circle gathers to disguise and preserve the parochet, a Torah fragment thousands of years old.
Unspeakable loss is endured, and among many shattering instances is when we see how knowledge we now take for granted was first conveyed to a stunned populace, as a gendarme in a café relates the monstrous infrastructure of the Final Solution to a horrified, disbelieving young Jew.
To speak so much of conflict is not to call The Thread depressing: rather, in the final judgement it is a novel to restore faith, familiar in the characters’ love of an often besieged city (we all know the feeling of ‘no place like home’) and gently sentimental in its portrayal of the unbreakable bonds of love and family.
3 / 5 stars: A vivid and evocative portrait of a city upended.
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