Book review – The Thread

The Thread is the first book I’ve read by Victoria Hislop, the best-selling author of The Island and The Return.

She is not a writer I would normally pick off the shelves, but our good friend Alex Overington passed The Thread our way after acquiring it during their recent trip to South Africa, and knowing that we are soon heading to Thessaloniki ourselves.

Gill and I are both Greek virgins, and are really excited about visiting Greece’s second city, in the north of the ancient country, and some of its surrounding landscapes, on a writing trip for those lovely people at Silver Travel Advisor.

My anticipation has only been heightened by reading this book, which offers up a fascinating insight into Thessaloniki’s multi-layered history and turbulent time throughout the 20th century. It also provides some stark parallels with the refugee crisis engulfing Europe today.

Occupying a strategically important location 520 km north of Athens, the port city is the capital of Greek Macedonia and played a central role in Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

After the Prologue, set in 2007 – where we meet ageing Dimitri and Katerina Komninos and their grandson – the story takes us back to 1917, and a very different Thessaloniki. Christians, Jews and Muslims happily co-exist in the ancient, labyrinthine streets. But a devastating fire rips through the city and changes its fabric – physical, religious and cultural – forever.

As part of the rebuilding process, Muslims are repatriated to Turkey and Asia Minor, from where more Christians replace them in Greece. Ringing any bells?

5 years later, rampaging Turkish soldiers attack Christians and force them from Asia Minor. A young Katerina Sarafoglou is separated from her mother, but rescued by Dimitri’s brother. A terrible refugee crisis ensues, with Katerina ending up in Thessaloniki with her new family, while her own mother and sister start a hard life near Athens.

Katerina is luckier. Her loving adoptive mother and sisters live in a poor but happy neighbourhood, next to the Jewish Moreno family. When she is old enough, Katerina works for them as a star seamstress and embroiderer.

But the Germans occupy the city in 1942, slowly stripping Thessaloniki of its supplies, pride…and ultimately, its remaining 50,000 Jewish population. After forcing the Morenos out of their business and home, they are transported to the death camps in Poland for the Final Solution.

The end of the war does not bring peace to Greece or to the city. Greek nationalists despise perceived collaborators, and Dimitri – an idealist – gets caught up with the Communists fighting the right wing government and army. He hides in the mountains of northern Greece, near the Albanian border, as his hated, opportunistic and greedy father Konstantinos becomes ever wealthier back in the city.

A vicious civil war follows, and then a devastating earthquake destroys more of the hard-pressed city.

The threads of the story, and its surviving characters, are pulled together in 2007, a time of relative peace and false affluence. But we know that the city and country are about to be engulfed in yet another crisis, following the global financial melt-down and the ensuing dilemma of bankrupt Greece’s place in the EU.

The Thread is a fascinating insight into Thessaloniki’s rich history and culture, and will undoubtedly enhance our own exploration of its streets, both ancient and modern.

But as a novel, I’m afraid I found the writing and the characterisations one-dimensional. Everyone is either a saint, a hero or a demon, and the plot plods from one historic event to the next, with little subtlety or shading.

As 1943 began, the city descended further into a state of famine. This took over as the main preoccupation of all those who lived in Thessaloniki.

The Moreno workshop was managing to retain all of its remaining employees (as well as Jacob, three others had died in the labour camp) but there was now little work. The Germans no longer came in for their suits and even the wealthier people of the city – “who must all be collaborators”, Kyria Moreno concluded – could not get the fabric for their new clothes. Konstantinos Komninos had put up the prices so much that only the very rich could afford to pay.

The star of the book is undoubtedly Thessaloniki, and I can’t wait to walk through its history.

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