It’s a real pleasure today to share my review of A Hundred Tiny Threads by Judith Barrow, published by Honno Press in August 2017, available in paperback and for kindle. Many moons ago, just before life went a little pear-shaped, I had plans to read and review Judith’s Howarth Family trilogy – A Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns and Living in the Shadows – and was looking forward to it very much. But life moved on, and the lure of new books proved too great: and when this book, the series prequel, was published I had too many books on my reading list to be able to read it. But I bought it, kept it on my kindle – and I’m just sorry it’s taken the approaching Narberth Book Fair (Judith is co-organiser) to give me the prod I needed to give some long overdue attention to the author’s wonderful writing.
It’s 1911 and Winifred Duffy is a determined young woman eager for new experiences, for a life beyond the grocer’s shop counter ruled over by her domineering mother.
The scars of Bill Howarth’s troubled childhood linger. The only light in his life comes from a chance encounter with Winifred, the girl he determines to make his wife.
Meeting her friend Honora’s silver-tongued brother turns Winifred’s heart upside down. But Honora and Conal disappear, after a suffrage rally turns into a riot, and abandoned Winifred has nowhere to turn but home.
The Great War intervenes, sending Bill abroad to be hardened in a furnace of carnage and loss. When he returns his dream is still of Winifred and the life they might have had…
Back in Lancashire, worn down by work and the barbed comments of narrow-minded townsfolk, Winifred faces difficult choices in love and life.
It’s wholly irrational on my part, but I frequently shy away from books that I believe to be part of a “saga” – with some ridiculous expectation that they will be lesser in some way than the contemporary issues-based fiction that tends to make up much of my reading list. I hate to think what I might have been missing out on – this book was just stunning. If you’re looking for issues, you’ll certainly find them here, set against a social and political background vividly and compellingly described. The research that went into this book must have been immense, transformed into its vivid settings and the authentic portrayal of life of the time.
It’s a sweeping story that takes in life in the slums (and among those who perceive themselves rather more genteel), the rise of the Suffragette movement and the extraordinarily violent reaction to it, moves to the front during World War 1, travels to Ireland with the Black and Tans, and takes in the very different lives of those in the countryside. There are harrowing images in this book that seared themselves into my memory – and others that moved me deeply. But while its scale and reach took my breath away, at its heart it’s a story of two individuals, Winifred and Bill – the twists and turns of their own small lives, the events that changed the world and the lives of everyone they touched seen through their eyes and from their unique perspectives.
The characterisation is wonderful. Winifred is something of a heroine for her time, endeavouring to escape the control of her mother, both warm-hearted and immensely likeable. Bill is rather more of an enigma – his early attraction to and obsession with the lovely shop girl turning into something altogether darker and considerably more menacing. There’s an immense skill in retaining a reader’s compassion for a character when sometimes repelled by their actions – but the author certainly achieves it, making the relationship element of the story totally compelling. The book’s structure, with their alternating stories, drives the narrative at considerable pace, but also serves to bring the key characters vividly to life. Every supporting character is drawn in perfect detail – the excitement of the forbidden and different through Honora and Conal, the family relationships that are so complex and challenging. Every exchange, every moment of dialogue, is absolutely real, moving the story on and illuminating the characters, who have absolute historical authenticity.
When I emerged at the end of this book – during the reading, my immersion was total – it was with a sense of having experienced it all first hand, and of having deeply felt every moment. This was story-telling at its very best… and a book that will long linger in my memory.
About the author (from the Narberth Book Fair website)
Although I was born and brought up in a small village on the edge of the Pennine moors in Yorkshire, for the last forty years I’ve lived with my husband and family near the coast in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, UK, a gloriously beautiful place.
I’ve written all my life and have had short stories, poems, plays, reviews and articles published throughout the British Isles. But only started to seriously write novels after I’d had breast cancer twenty years ago. Four novels safely stashed away, never to see the light of day again, I had the first of my trilogy, Pattern of Shadows, published in 2010, the sequel, Changing Patterns, in 2013 and the last, Living in the Shadows in 2015. The prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads was published in August 2017.
I have an MA in Creative Writing, B.A. (Hons.) in Literature, and a Diploma in Drama and Script Writing. I am also a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council’s Lifelong Learning Programme and give talks and run workshops on all genres.
When I’m not writing or teaching, I’m doing research for my writing, walking the Pembrokeshire coastline or reading and reviewing books for Rosie Amber’s Review Team #RBRT, along with some other brilliant authors and bloggers.