I remember when I read my first Tracy Chevalier book. I was on holiday in St. Ives with my family. I must have been about sixteen years old. It was August, and I’d exhausted all of the books I’d crammed into my little suitcase. There was a lopsided bookcase in the living room of our cottage, full of well-loved books read by many people over the years, and among them there were two new Tracy Chevalier novels: Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn.
I inhaled both of them over the course of a few days. I vaguely remember my mum recommending Tracy Chevalier to me prior to this but, because I was a teenager, I had, of course, completely dismissed her recommendation. I shouldn’t have because 1. Tracy’s work is delightful, and 2. mums are so often right. Although the latter cannot always be said of the mother in this particular book.
‘August was a month off the prime of July, when the natural world was at its height. It brought with it a melancholy that would deepen in September. Violet preferred October, when the world dropped its leaves and became properly crisp and cold, accepting its fate…’
A Single Thread, published this month, is Tracy’s tenth novel and it’s wonderful to hide behind its pages, knowing you’re in the hands of such a skilled storyteller. It begins with a ‘Shhh!’ and ‘Violet Speedwell frowned. She did not need shushing; she had not said anything.’ By the end of this novel, our main character — Violet Speedwell — has said rather a lot.
Set fourteen years after the Great War, Violet is finding her feet. She’s lost her father, her brother and her fiancé. She’s surrounded by the so-called ‘surplus women’ who are navigating a world with far fewer men, and she’s determined to track down her own light and colour — to find a space of her very own.
She finds it by moving out of her mother’s house and discovering the broderers, a group of women at Winchester cathedral who are passionate about embroidery, creating kneelers for worshippers and putting their stamp on centuries-long traditions.
A Single Thread doesn’t just refer to their embroidery; it refers to the narrative thread of single women in society, and it’s by meeting female broderers who she greatly admires that Violet finds the strength to stand up to her employer, to embark on a solo holiday, to unpick the way society has taught her to think about herself, and other women, and start again.
There are many things I love about Chevalier’s work, and one is her attention to detail. The amount of research she conducts means that not only do her characters and plot come to life, but the tasks they undertake feel so very present. I’ve learned so much about painting, quilting, embroidery and bell ringing from her books. Facts that have been so seamlessly inserted, it simply feels as though the characters are sharing their secrets, and inviting you to join them in their craft.
‘She could just make out massive wooden frames holding bells that stood upside down, their mouths open skywards like those of chicks wanting to be fed. But they were enormous chicks, more like bulls or elephants, made of dusty grey metal, silent and waiting.’