Sunday 21 July 2013

My holiday reading. Victoria Hislop

'The Thread' & The Last Dance'

both by Victoria Hislop

Read on holiday in Quiberon, Brittany, France. July 2013

I discovered Victoria Hislop in Crete in 2011, when my holiday neighbour's daughter lent The Island to her mum, who lent it to me. I read and returned it in a day, downloaded a copy to my iPad for safe keeping and in 2013 gave copies to many via World Book Night. Whist on Crete, I visited Spinalonga and was able to share pictures of the island at the WBN 2013 lunch party for Finchley Carers.

I'd always intended to get back to this author, purchasing The Return & The Thread on Kindle and treating myself to an early hardback of The Last Dance for Christmas. Circumstances  had left all unread.

Here in France, surrounded by sea on the Presqu'├«le de Quiberon, where most of the time the mobile phone says 'no service' and the internet is all but non existent, has some of the timeless village feel of a Greek island. Thankfully, I remembered to bring Victoria Hislop on holiday with me.  

Having not had the peace of mind to read for some time, I began with the short story book The Last Dance. She drew me in gently with a parrot changing the course of the lives of two people and thereby (presumably) going on to rock whole village and the wider Catholic Church; she finished with a man marrying the wrong bride. As in her longer works, the recurrent theme of seeking the balance between family ties and a just equanimity in society was explored. This was powerfully illustrated in a rather bloody tale of rival butchers in a meat market. Always she looks for hope and reconciliation.

Along the way her One Cretan Evening, which I believe comes from another of her short story collections, is a powerful tale of misrepresentation leading to cruel injustice. She takes the story far enough to demonstrate the attempts at atonement, by those who had followed the words of others rather than seeking the truth for themselves. How I wish that I ever saw that in my own work with the misjudged.

Having feasted on the hors d'oeuvre of short stories, I was finally ready to start the main meal of a complete book. Although tempted to track her progression as a writer by reading The Return, I decided to stick with Greece and skipped to Thessaloniki for The Thread.

She begins in 2007 with an English born student visiting his grandparents whilst studying for his Masters in a Greek university. At a port-side cafe he encourages them to consider invitations to live out their days with their lawyer son's family in Highate, or their doctor daughter's family in Boston USA. Having posed the question, he helps a blind man across the busy street. The blind man suggests that the student shuts his eyes for a moment to see Thessaloniki with his other senses. Dimitri is overwhelmed by the experience. He returns and is told that although there had been no other option than to send their children abroad for education the old folks had always hoped that they would return to Thessaloniki. They buy meagre provisions in the market and carry them to their modest flat to prepare a feast for their beloved grandson. Whilst the food is cooking, Dimitri senior and his beloved wife Katerina tell their stories and demonstrate why they could never leave. The book ends with the young Dimitri (whom his grandparents address using the diminutive Mitsos) accepting that they will stay and making a radical decision about his own future.

The story takes us through two world wars, a civil war and massive political and economic change. We see destruction of life and property by fire, earthquake and fanatical human cruelty.

Dimitri's Grandfather, also called Dimitri was the son of Konstantinos, a wealthy, right wing Thessalonian merchant; who manufactured for himself the perfect family, to demonstrate to the town that he could entertain in style and to ensure the survival of the business through inheritance by the son. Changing circumstances ensure that this will never happen. None of his money passed to his son but when it became apparent that they couldn't be treated fairly in Thessaloniki, his widow (Olga senior) paid for her son's children Theodoris (a gift from God) and Olga junior to be educated in London and Boston.

Dimitri's Grandmother, Katerina, was a child refugee from Smyrna (Izmir) involved in a population exchange of Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims. We meet her trying to find her mother who has just left with her new baby on a boat to Athens. A soldier tends little Katerina's wounded arm and thereby saves her life. He binds the wounded arm with part of his shirt, on which a silver button hung by a thread.

What is unusual about Victoria Hislop is that she tells you so much at the beginning. No need to take a sneaky look at the last chapter. You, the reader, start out knowing that both Dimitri and Katerina survive. You know almost from the outset that it is Dimitri's ill fated uncle who saved Katerina's  life, although it is only in the closing pages that this is revealed to the two central characters. You are therefore left not wondering 'if' they will survive, or get themselves out of seemingly impossible life situations of vastly unequal wealth and poverty, to end up together in modest retirement with highly educated international children and grandchildren. You can only wonder 'how on earth' it is going to happen, especially when you realise that so much of the book is gone and so much is left to resolve.

The pace is fast, she makes compelling reading, difficult to put down. Some of her descriptions are utterly brilliant, for instance telling us about the uninvited flies who live with the the goat and the chickens, as a way of helping us to see the stench and squalor of living in abject poverty, with essential animals as part of the household. To cover 90 years of history containing so much detail of two world wars, the events between them and afterwards, within a relatively short novel about love and family ties is a daunting task, brilliantly executed. Her ability to get behind the headlines and tell us how it felt for ordinary and extraordinary people caught up in unbelievable catastrophe is awesome.

Hislop explores the changing place of women in society as mothers, wives, daughters, lovers, workers, homemakers, prostitutes, mannequins and chattels. She explores the relationship between mother or mother substitute and daughter and between father and son, especially when politically there is no common ground.

At the heart of the book she tells the story of Jews going like lambs to the slaughter. Encouraged by the gullible Rabbi to withdraw and exchange their Greek savings for Polish currency to take with them on the train to their 'new lives' in the gas chambers. As we know from the preface to the book Katerina ensures the survival of some of the most precious Jewish relics by sewing them into very ordinary objects in daily use by Christians. Places where they would never be discovered until, much later, she was able to hand them over to those who could pass them onto future generations.    

The Thread and The Last Dance are two books very much to be recommended. As was The Island.  Now I need to get my head out of Greece and head for Spain, to read The Return. Then I'll have to wait for her to write something new!

The only frustrating thing about reading Hislop on the beach or campsite with no Internet is the inability to Google for explanation of her many references, historical events, passages from the Bible & the Torah, names and illustrations from classical mythology and folk tales. Maybe I need to re-read her books in London and thereby teach myself some history and culture.

(C) Jan Loxley Blount 15/07/13
Conguel, Quiberon, France.