Friday, June 29, 2012

A look at 90 years of Greek history via Victoria Hislop's The Thread

In late 2010 I reviewed Victoria Hislop's The Island for the A-Z in Historical Fiction challenge. It twined through the history of Spinalonga, an isle off the Cretan coast which was kept as a leper colony, but the overall message was more uplifting than tragic.  When I learned that Hislop was returning to Greece with her newest book, The Thread, I awaited it with anticipation.  And then it was sent to me for review... a nice surprise!

Although I haven't read her middle book yet (The Return, about the Spanish Civil War) I agree with reviewers who speak of the great improvement in her writing style over time. The Thread unites her already firm storytelling skills and historical sensibility with nuanced characterizations.  It's an epic story that never drags, one full of devastation and hope - and yes, it would make a good book club choice.  Don't let this description scare you off, though.  I dislike sappy novels, and fortunately The Thread isn't one of them.

Combining a keen eye for detail with her usual fluid writing style, Hislop presents an engrossing excursion to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest metropolis, a relatively unexplored setting for fiction. By the novel’s end, however, readers will be intimately acquainted with its troubled politics and rich cultural heritage.

The Thread begins in 1917 and spans 90 years, tracing the lives of Dimitri, son of a wealthy, coldhearted cloth merchant, and Katerina, who arrives as a child refugee from Smyrna after the Greco-Turkish War and becomes a skilled embroiderer in a Jewish family’s workshop. Circumstances place them in the same neighborhood on Irini Street, whose kindly residents make up for its lack of affluence.

Childhood friends, Dimitri and Katerina eventually fall in love and marry, an event foreshadowed by the novel’s modern frame. Their interwoven stories skillfully incorporate Greece’s Nazi occupation and civil war, in which Dimitri takes a risky antigovernment stance.

This fast-moving, touching saga about tragedy, recovery, and the real meaning of family is full of dramatic incidents demonstrating the city’s transformation and resilience.

The Thread is published in July by Harper in trade pb at $14.99 (400pp). In the UK, the publisher is Headline Review, from whom it appeared in hardcover last October; the trade pb appeared in May at £7.99. Around the same time, the author wrote an article for The Telegraph about her passion for Greece (where her books are huge bestsellers, and where The Island was adapted into a miniseries) and her sad observations on the financial crisis plaguing the country.

Portions of this post were previously published in the May 15th issue of Booklist.


  1. I've read two of her books and was enthralled by both. Thanks for the update on this one as it is new to me.

  2. Nice to know that The Return is just as good - I have it waiting on the shelf.

  3. I really liked The Island so an improvement bodes well for when I read The Thread which will hopefully be soon.

  4. I really liked it as well although found some characters stereotypical. This one's better in that respect, although there is one majorly nasty character (Dimitri's father).

  5. Marg of The Intrepid Reader put Victoria Hislop on my map. I think you have just pointed me to the book I want to read as my introduction to her work. Your mention of "book club" did give me a momentary start since fiction popular with book clubs rarely seem to appeal to me, so it was amusing to see you immediately follow that note with a reassurance :-)

  6. Heh, glad I was able to reassure you on that score! The novel grapples with some weighty issues, due to the city's troubled history, and there aren't easy answers. So book clubs would find a lot of things to talk about. I've liked some "book club" books, though not others, and don't belong to one myself. The Thread and The Island were both Richard & Judy club picks, and I've never seen an episode of that show - not being in the UK - but their choices tend to suit me personally more than, say, Oprah's.

  7. there aren't easy answers

    Now I love the sound of that! Thank you for the additional explanation.

    You know, I keep hearing about Richard & Judy but haven't figured out who they are ... British TV-personalities? Going to remedy that now.

  8. There are a few aspects of the novel that felt a little contrived to me: the modern frame (Dimitri and Katerina's grandson coming to visit them, hoping to convince them to leave their city; not a spoiler, as it's the opening scene) plus some of the secondary characters weren't as multidimensional as they could be. I won't say anything else, in order to avoid spoilers. But Hislop makes it clear how the country's history has shaped its culture and people. Overall, a painless way to learn about 20th-c Greece. US audiences likely won't take to it as quickly as others (the setting is too unfamiliar, despite Greece being in the news constantly) but I hope I'm wrong.