Friday, July 29, 2022

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth tells a multilayered story of WWII Crete

Partway through reading The Crimson Thread, which takes place on Crete during WWII, I exclaimed to myself, This is a retelling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth! I had read the US publisher’s blurb, which didn’t include this, but the Australian publisher does. Kate Forsyth is known for her creative reworkings of ancient tales (she has a PhD in fairytale studies), so I should have figured this out sooner. Knowing the underlying structure added even more dimension to a story I had already been enjoying.

Among the abundance of WWII novels, I seek out those with underexplored characters or settings, and this one qualifies. The story focuses on the underground resistance on Crete and three young people caught in a love triangle while trying to survive and repel the Nazi invaders.

Alenka Klothakis lives near the Ariadne Villa in the village of Knossos and works as a translator for the curator at the archeological site there. With her mother near-mute after past trauma, and her twelve-year-old half-brother Axel, whose father was German, obsessed with Hitler and sympathetic to the Nazis, Alenka’s home life is tense. She is at heart a rebel (“It infuriated her that Greece was the home of democracy, but she was not allowed to vote”), and when her life becomes entwined with two Australian soldiers, she risks much to save them both.

Teddy Lloyd and Jack Hawke were childhood friends and fellow Classics students at the University of Melbourne before deciding to join up. Otherwise, the men are very different; Teddy is dashing and flirtatious, seeing Alenka as a possible conquest, while Jack is thoughtful though no less courageous, and he has a special affinity for the history and stories of the Greek isles—as does Alenka. Their connection ignites Teddy’s jealousy and leads him to lash out against his supposed “best mate.” Meanwhile, Axel moves from bratty adolescent rebellion to actual collaboration with the enemy.

author Kate Forsyth
The novel spans the entirety of the war, beginning with the German invasion and subsequent occupation to the Allied forces’ retreat over the White Mountains and the evacuation from Crete—which Teddy and Jack are unable to join, for separate reasons. The on-the-ground action feels vividly real, but what sets the novel apart is the cultural history and symbolism woven through the story in the form of music, dance, and colorful embroidery.

Jack has a talent for playing the lyra and finds that the stammer he has when speaking disappears when he sings. And Alenka, an experienced needlewoman, employs her skill in her work with the Resistance, literally and figuratively deciding which threads to spin—and which to snip. She is a wonderfully nuanced character, a young woman torn between caring for her family and saving her homeland, and she hates the idea of being any man’s possession.

Steeped in the alluring history of Crete, both ancient and modern, The Crimson Thread can be appreciated on many levels. It is a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre and to WWII-era historical fiction.

The Crimson Thread is published in the US by Blackstone; it's also out from Penguin Random House in Australia. I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

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  1. The books covering WWII cover such a huge spectrum and each story is unique and so readable. Thank you for this review.

    1. There's a lot of truth to that, and a big reason the era is so popular. Thanks for your comments about the review.

  2. I have tired of the WWII novels but this one sounds interesting because of the Crete setting. Thanks for posting about it.

    1. I think this is the first WWII novel I've read that was set on Crete. It was a unique perspective. Thanks for commenting!