About the Book
It is 1932, and the losses of the First World War are still keenly felt. Violet Speedwell, mourning for both her fiancé and her brother and regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry, resolves to escape her suffocating mother and strike out alone.
A new life awaits her in Winchester. Yes, it is one of draughty boarding-houses and sidelong glances at her naked ring finger from younger colleagues; but it is also a life gleaming with independence and opportunity. Violet falls in with the broderers, a disparate group of women charged with embroidering kneelers for the Cathedral, and is soon entwined in their lives and their secrets. As the almost unthinkable threat of a second Great War appears on the horizon Violet collects a few secrets of her own that could just change everything…
Format: Hardcover, ebook (344 pp.) Publisher: The Borough Press
Publication date: 5th September 2019 Genre: Historical Fiction
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The author convincingly depicts the details of daily life in the 1930s and, in particular, the challenges faced by women like Violet struggling to survive on a meagre income (for example, making a choice between a hot meal, more coal on the fire or a treat such as a trip to the cinema) and facing open prejudice at work because of their gender and unmarried status, whether from necessity or inclination. For example, the unquestioned assumption that they will at some point either give up work to marry or care for elderly relatives.
When Violet Speedwell joins the Winchester Cathedral broderers it introduces her, and I suspect many other readers, to a new vocabulary: long-armed cross, rice, upright gobelin amongst others. It also allows the reader to encounter some fascinating characters such as the impressive Miss Pesel and the rather fearsome Mrs. Biggins. The observation that “a leader comfortable with her authority does not need to be strident” is entirely on point when it comes to the latter. With the author’s customary insight, the relationships between the broderers, their petty prejudices and attitudes to those who, in their view, do not conform to social norms are laid bare.
Outside the circle of the broderers, and in much the same vein, there’s Violet’s budgie-loving landlady, Mrs Harvey, who assiduously guards the coal supply and carefully vets visitors to the boarding house. And there’s Violet’s mother, the domineering Mrs. Speedwell, who always seems to have a put down for her daughter within easy reach but who becomes a more sympathetic figure later in the book, albeit after a little ‘taming’.
I liked the touching relationship that develops between Violet and Winchester Cathedral bell-ringer, Arthur Knight. They are both, in different ways, lonely people who find comfort in each other’s company and conversation but recognize the seeming impossibility of something more. You wouldn’t naturally think that sharing the experience of bell ringing or examining embroidered kneelers could create a sense of intimacy but the author manages it. The impending threat of a second world war, when many are still struggling to cope with the impact of the first one, is cleverly introduced through the media of both embroidery and bell-ringing. I also liked the way the concentration required to execute both skills is presented as a beneficial distraction from other worries.
I warmed to Violet for her efforts to do good, such as the attention she pays to her niece Marjory or her attempts to help her fellow broderers, Gilda and Dorothy, even if her efforts do not always succeed. And I applauded her desire for independence (a ‘life of sorts’, as she puts it) even if that does bring with it a conflict between loyalty to family and personal fulfilment.
There was only one rather melodramatic, albeit minor, element of the storyline that didn’t work for me; it felt misplaced and out of character with the rest of the book. Other than that I really enjoyed immersing myself in the atmosphere of the inter-war period the author so vividly recreates in A Single Thread. And, as a bonus, I now know a lot more than I did before about embroidery and bell-ringing although not enough, I suspect, to demonstrate competence in either. The final chapters of the book left me uplifted and satisfied in equal measure.
I received a review copy courtesy of The Borough Press and NetGalley.
In three words: Engaging, tender, emotional
Try something similar: Stealing Roses by Heather Cooper (read my review here)
About the Author
Tracy Chevalier grew up in Washington D.C. She moved to England in 1984 and graduated in 1994 from the MA course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
Her first novel, The Virgin Blue, was chosen by W H Smith for its Fresh Talent promotion in 1997. In 2000 HarperCollins published Girl with a Pearl Earring which has gone on to sell over two million copies worldwide. Falling Angels was published to much critical acclaim in 2002. The Lady and the Unicorn followed in 2004 and Burning Bright in 2007, followed by the bestselling Remarkable Creatures in 2009.
The film of Girl with a Pearl Earring starring Colin Firth as Vermeer was released in the UK in 2003. It was nominated for 10 BAFTAs and two Academy Awards.
Tracy Chevalier lives in North London with her husband and son.
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