Book review: The Thread by Victoria Hislop

In one way or another, fire shaped the formative years of two young Greeks...

Tuesday, 1st November 2011, 6:00 am

On the day Dimitri Komninos was born in the multicultural city of Thessaloniki in 1917, a devastating fire destroyed many of its major buildings, leaving 72,000 people homeless.

Five years later, little Katerina Sarafoglou’s home in Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of Anatolia in Asia Minor, was burned down by a marauding Turkey army and she was forced to flee to safety in Greece.

The story of Thessaloniki’s dramatic and blood-soaked history and how the lives of two children become forever entwined takes centre stage in Victoria Hislop’s absorbing new novel whose themes of love, loyalty and loss highlight how the past impacts on the future.

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Following her two successful books, The Island and The Return, Hislop makes a welcome revisit to sun-drenched Greece for this powerful and moving recreation of the wars, divisions and persecutions that have beset Thessaloniki over the past 100 years.

Through the eyes of two innocent children and the long-suffering Christian, Jewish and Muslim families who once dwelt in harmony within the city’s ancient walls, we witness the terror and pain of strife and separation.

Against the epic backdrop of two world wars, civil conflict, natural disaster, the forces of communism and nationalism and political, social and religious upheaval, Hislop allows a very personal and piquant story to unfold.

Katerina is only five when she is separated from her mother and baby sister in the chaos of Smyrna but kindly widow Eugenia Karayanidis and her twins Maria and Sofia take her under their wing as they are all transported to a new life in Thessaloniki.

The refugees move in next door to Dimitri Komninos and his mother Olga who are living in a rundown but friendly and cosmopolitan area of the city while their luxury house is being rebuilt following the great fire of 1917.

Katerina becomes a talented seamstress, creating beautiful garments for the rich, whilst Dimitri, son of a wealthy textile trader, studies medicine and becomes involved with the Communist Party.

From a shared glass of lemonade on a pavement cafe to a passionate love affair, the fates of Katerina and Dimitri become inextricably bound together but they must also endure the horrors of ethnic cleansing and the invasion of their city by first the Italian fascists and then the German army.

Over 60 years later, English-born Mitsos is studying in Thessaloniki and hears his grandparents’ story for the first time. He learns that where we live and who we live with so often defines who we are, and he realises he has a decision to make.

For many decades, Katerina and Dimitri have looked after the memories and treasures of the people who were forced to leave. Should Mitsos become their next custodian and make this city his home?

The Thread is a beautifully and carefully woven story with each colourful strand creating not just an inspirational picture of human compassion and resilience but also a rich and broad tapestry of Greece’s chequered history throughout the 20th century.

The perfect read for those long autumn evenings...

(Headline Review, hardback, £18.99)