Characters stitched together with care

Chevalier succeeds admirably in immersing the reader in the atmosphere of a large English town of nearly a century ago

27 October 2019 - 00:00 By ANTON FERREIRA
'A Single Thread' by Tracy Chevalier.
'A Single Thread' by Tracy Chevalier.
Image: HarperCollins

Published in the Sunday Times: 27/10/2019

A Single Thread ****
Tracy Chevalier
HarperCollins, R305

Tracy Chevalier sets her story in early 1930s England, a time and place when, apparently, a woman's search for a husband was her major preoccupation and "spinster" was a dirty word.

It's a fate that looms for her protagonist, Violet Speedwell, pushing 40, who lost her fiancé in World War 1 and has never gotten over it. The book's title is drawn from a hobby she stumbles into, needlepoint, during a visit to Winchester Cathedral.

She joins a group that is making embroidered cushions for the pews, and develops an interest in the pealing church bells above their heads. An interest that focuses on one of the men who pull the bells' ropes.

It may not sound like promising material - morose woman joins church sewing group, hears ringing sound - but A Single Thread is strongly character-driven and Chevalier succeeds admirably in immersing the reader in the atmosphere of a large English town of nearly a century ago. Remember Imperial typewriters? Typing pools? A time when women were called "girls" and no-one batted an eyelid? There is forbidden love and a stalker, and a great deal of surprisingly fascinating information about bell-ringing.

Chevalier has obviously done a considerable amount of research into embroidery and church bells - if you ever wondered where the phrase "ringing the changes" originated, buy this book - but at times she is so determined to convey it all to the reader that she puts lengthy lectures in the mouths of her characters. Violet's cranky mother is more a caricature than a real person, but others in the cast make up for it, especially Gilda, an LGBTQ+ member of the needlepoint group.

A great beach book, and you have to love it that Chevalier auctioned naming rights for one of the characters to raise funds for a charity that helps survivors of torture. 


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