Monday 9 September 2019

A SINGLE THREAD by Tracy Chevalier, reviewed by Adele Geras

"I'm not going to spoil the pleasure of new readers by outlining the plot, but this is not a 'breakneck speed' sort of book. Take your time with it. Look at the details ..."

Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She lives in Cambridge.A historical novel for adults will be published by Michael Joseph in June 2020 under a pseudonym yet to be publicly revealed.

I've been a fan of Tracy Chevalier's work since her wonderful novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, swept all before it twenty years ago. She's written many novels but the ones I like best seem to be, when I list them in my head, the ones where needlework of some kind plays an important part. The Lady and the Unicorn is about the miraculous tapestries of the same name now to be seen in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The Last Runaway is about patchwork and quilting, which is another of Chevalier's interests. I've also read her book The Sleep Quilt which is all about the fascinating exhibition of prisoners' work which she curated together with the charity Fine Cell Work.

Fine Cell Work teaches prisoners to sew and embroider. It's part of the process of rehabilitation for sometimes very violent and troubled men. I have a small lavender pillow embroidered with a poppy which I bought in the exhibition and it sits on my bed all the time. I mention this charity not only because I'm always eager to draw it to people's attention but also because it's relevant to Chevalier's new book which demonstrates most beautifully the power of stitching to mend and heal.

My own relationship with sewing and embroidery is chequered to say the least. That's much too polite. I'm useless. I give my trousers to an alteration shop to be turned up. In the Junior House at my boarding school, we all had to embroider things like traycloths while our Housemistress read aloud to us from books like Brother Dusty Feet by Rosemary Sutcliff. The pattern was printed on the fabric and at the beginning, I had visions of perfectly even stitches, executed in shining silky thread. The reality was very different. To be precise, it was a mess. I cannot embroider neatly. The back of my work was always a tangled jungle of silks. Ghastly is too good a word for what I produced.

But I love the idea of embroidery. In fact, it's been an obsession of mine since childhood. I adore it. I'm mad about the Bayeux tapestry which is an embroidery and not a tapestry at all. I've written many poems about sewing and embroidery, It appears in some of my own books and most recently, I've written on the History Girls blog about an exhibition of embroidery at Ely Cathedral. Here is a link to that.

Then a proof of A Single Thread arrived in my house, and of course I read it at once, and I loved it. It embodies in its story the notion that sewing, particularly in the company of others, is soothing, calming, and helpful to anyone whose emotions are in turmoil.

Violet Speedwell is one of the 'surplus women' whose fiancés and boyfriends, husband and lovers, have been killed in the Great War. She moves from living with her mother (a very particular kind of monster) in Southampton to living on her own in a boarding-house in Winchester. She is both escaping and recovering. Her lover is dead and her mother is somewhere else, and Violet has taken a job in an office. She has almost no money. She lives on practically no food at all. Then one day she sees the beautiful needlepoint-covered kneelers in the Cathedral, all hand stitched, and she meets 'the broderers'. The true story of these women, under the guidance of Louisa Pesel, is woven into the fiction Chevalier has created. You can, she tells us in an afterword, still see these kneelers in the Cathedral and use them yourself. Pesel was a real person and the novel places her slightly to the side of the main narrative, but still very important in the book as a factual anchor to the fiction Chevalier has created.

The fiction is Violet's story. How she comes out of the shade and blooms in the warmth of shared work and a very unusual romance. I'm not going to spoil the pleasure of new readers by outlining the plot, but this is not a 'breakneck speed' sort of book. Take your time with it. Look at the details. Learn about bell-ringing, which is vital to the story. Enjoy the glimpses of life in the Cathedral. Follow Violet's progress to the end, stitch by stitch by stitch. It's a very satisfying book and if I had to describe it, I'd say it was the sort of novel which, if it hadn't been written this year, feels like the books published by the excellent Persephone Books in elegant dove-grey covers. Lovers of these volumes know exactly what I mean. If anyone doesn't know them, I recommend a trip to the Persephone Books website or shop. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy following The Single Thread as much as I did.

A Single Thread is published by Borough Press.


Patricia C-P said...

Anyone who is interested in embroidery and tapestries should see the Ros Tapestry, Irelands answer to the Bayeux. It tells the story of Norman New Ross in fifteen panels.I was designed by artist Ann Griffin Bernstorff and embroidered by local groups over a period of many years . It is just coming to completion and is an Irish narional treasure.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for this review, Adele. I definitely want to read A Single Thread - especially now, as I am just home from a holiday in which we visited three cathedrals within the space of a few days and saw some beautiful embroidery.