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Book Reflections – The Thread by Victoria Hislop

Book cover – The Thread by Victoria Hislop

In this historical novel The Thread, Hislop relates big slabs of history, presumably from the book she praises in her long epilogue Salonica: City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower. I’m quite happy to read history and Hislop weaves through it a family saga to keep the reader’s interest but I imagine that it would annoy some readers. At times it felt like Hislop’s characters were marking time until the next big calamity occurred in Thessaloniki from a massive fire that destroyed most of the city to a crazy exchange of Turks for Greeks that caused a massive influx of displaced people to Nazi occupation and transportation of the entire Jewish population to death in Poland to a civil war, dictatorship and a massive earthquake. It certainly has an interesting history but Hislop is not gifted enough at interweaving history with narrative.
Hislop makes some surprising simplifications, for example she said that Kemal Atatürk was born in Thessaloniki. While this is true there are 2 problems with her statement, one is that he was born as Ali Rıza oğlu Mustafa and was given the name Kemal by a teacher and granted the name Atatürk (father of the Turks) in 1934. Considering that she includes whole chunks of history in the book it wouldn’t have taken many words to represent the father of modern Turkey accurately. The second is that at the time that he was born, Thessaloniki was part of the Ottoman Empire and was called Selânik but Hislop makes no mention of that.

Hislop mistakenly refers to a Turkish family as Arab. That’s not true. Turks have their own language, history, genetic origins in central Asia, and culture that are separate from the Arabs. The Ottoman Empire used a version of the Perso-Arabic script. It was Atatürk who swept away this script and adopted a modified latin script in 1928 as part of his creation of a modern, secular state. Turks are not Arabs and Hislop should know that. When referring to a Turkish family and a Jewish family she said

The two families were all agreed: they had so many things in common. Expulsion of their respective races from Spain was just one of them.

The Turks weren’t expelled from Spain.

I’ve just used a lot of words to predominantly criticise the book but I didn’t hate it. I was moderately interested to follow the story of young refugee Katerina, unhappily married Olga and privileged Dimitri. Central themes are friendship, cross-cultural tolerance and love. I must be immune to the saccharine standard plot devices Hislop used, making her young would-be-lovers suffer and love apart for decades before they finally get together (think Khaled Hosseini) but it was too transparent to me. I also found the interactions between the neighbours from different cultural backgrounds too ‘nice’ and lacking in the normal pettiness that comes from being crammed together under desperate circumstances. I don’t need Hislop to preach tolerance to me.

I took the book to the Middle East and Malaysia with me and if I had other options I may not have persisted with reading it. Hislop does not draw her characters fully and the did not ‘live’ for me but were restricted to rather dull words on a page. In my opinion this book doesn’t deserve its popularity but then life is not fair and true literature rarely sells as well as books like this.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Am I far too harsh?

These reviews are far more enthusiastic:

The Thread by Victoria Hislop


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This entry was posted on November 25, 2016 by in fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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