'The Silver Thread' by Kylie Fitzpatrick

The Silver Thread by Kylie Fitzpatrick is one of those rare books that look as though they’ll take you an age to read… but I devoured this one in four days. One of the huge batch of proof copies from a local bookshop, this was the first one I took out of the bags when I was exploring, and it practically had my name on it, so I nabbed it, along with one or two others, to keep in my stash (being the boss of a writers’ circle definitely has its perks!).

Set between 1840 and 1842, we first meet Rhiannon Mahoney at home in Ireland. Her family are linen merchants and, as a result, her world is lavish with colour and texture. The chapters are all named after a particular cloth or weave, and somewhere in that chapter, that cloth or weave is mentioned - someone may be wearing it or it’s otherwise woven into a scene (see what I did, there?), cleverly tying things together. (Sorry. Puns are so easy with this… I’ll stop now, I promise.)

Her betrothed scarpered after she told him an anecdote about the family history and, a little while after a row with her father about it (she’s 28 and heading for spinsterhood), his storehouse goes up in flames. Thus, the family business is ruined. In order that Rhia can survive, her uncle invites her to lodge with an acquaintance of his in Cloak Lane, London, and there her journey really begins. Mrs Blake, a widowed Quaker, is her hostess, and she finds Rhia work with a local haberdasher, Mr Mongomery, a good-looking fifty-something who has an effect on all sorts of women, which undoubtedly helps his business nicely. Mrs Blake holds the negative of an image she took a couple of years ago, called ‘photogenic drawing’, a precursor of modern photography, and this is a pivotal part of the plot, as one of the people in the unexposed image is her husband Josiah, and she is afraid to look upon it - because, shortly after the image was taken, he died.

As I don’t wish to reveal spoilers, I won’t give away too much detail here, but here is an extract from the blurb:

…Rhia's life is changed beyond all imagination when her uncle, a shipping merchant, commits suicide. Rhia cannot - will not - believe he would take his own life, but before she can investigate, she is accused of a crime she didn't commit, and forced to board a prison ship bound for New South Wales.

So we’re taken from Dublin to London to Australia, when Sydney Town was in its infancy and mainly populated by transported convicts. Life aboard a transport ship was tough, and we get to see it from Rhia’s point of view, made more emotive because of her innocence. Back in London, Mrs Blake has two servants, Beth and Juliette. Beth, Rhia likes - she’s cheerful and friendly. Juliette is dour and miserable and clearly has taken a dislike to Rhia. Later on in the book, we find that it’s Juliette’s history, though, which ties all the threads together (my apologies once again, but this really is the best way of saying it).

This is beautifully written, and for that, I must applaud Kylie Fitzpatrick. There were a few typos in the text, but that’s to be expected from a proof copy, and there were also a few instances where I was itching to take a red pen to it. But there you go. Old habits do indeed dye hard. (Sorry, sorry. I really couldn’t resist that one.)

I shall certainly be on the lookout for more from this writer, as she seems to have an ability to describe characters without many words - many of the women on the transport ship we have no idea what the author intended them to look like beyond the fact they were fat, or had red hair, or were pregnant. Rhia herself is described as having long black hair and an unconventional attitude for a woman of that time. But that’s enough, as the rest comes when they speak. For someone like me, this is a very good thing, as I like to be able to visualise when I read, as it helps me to lose myself in the story and, with this book, I was able to do that very easily.

Interspersed among the chapters are occasional letters, mainly from Rhia to Mamo, her deceased grandmother, with whom she is able to communicate. She can see her and talk to her as if she were still living and breathing, and this is in part, I suspect, because it was Mamo who named her Rhiannon after the Welsh goddess, telling her stories from legend and letting Rhia’s imagination run wild. They have a connection. Rhia also has pagan tendencies, something which would make her stand out like a beacon in a mostly Catholic, God-fearing community, and something which made me warm to her even more than I already had.

I’m not particularly into sewing and fabrics - I’ve always been hopeless with a needle and thread - but Kylie Fitzpatrick has written an extraordinary book, and I highly recommend it.