The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci

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The true beauty of this novel arises from the varied silken threads woven over and under and through the weft of history, some of those threads shining with hope, beauty, and the rosemary-scented days when there is peace, while others are stained through with blood, pain, and loss, stretched until they snap…almost.

Set against the mosques and minarets of Asia Minor and the ruins of ancient Athens, ‘The Embroiderer’ is a gripping saga of love and loss, hope and despair, and of the extraordinary courage of women in the face of adversity. 1822: During one of the bloodiest massacres of The Greek War of Independence, a child is born to a woman of legendary beauty in the Byzantine monastery of Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios.

The subsequent decades of bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks simmer to a head when the Greek army invades Turkey in 1919. During this time, Dimitra Lamartine arrives in Smyrna and gains fame and fortune as an embroiderer to the elite of Ottoman society. However it is her grand-daughter, Sophia, who takes the business to great heights only to see their world come crashing down with the outbreak of The Balkan Wars, 1912-13.

In 1922, Sophia begins a new life in Athens but the memory of a dire prophecy once told to her grandmother about a girl with flaming red hair begins to haunt her with devastating consequences. 1972: Eleni Stephenson is called to the bedside of her dying aunt in Athens.

In a story that rips her world apart, Eleni discovers the chilling truth behind her family’s dark past plunging her into the shadowy world of political intrigue, secret societies and espionage where families and friends are torn apart and where a belief in superstition simmers just below the surface.

Review by David Ebsworth:

Kathryn Gauci
Kathryn Gauci

This is Kathryn Gauci’s début novel – but I would never have known that from the writing and telling of her tale. It occurred to me, instead, that if Tolstoy had been able to produce a historical fiction based on the complex relationships between Greeks and Turks during the final days of the Ottoman Empire, it would have very much resembled The Embroiderer.

The action moves smoothly between carefully woven images of Chios, Constantinople, Smyrna and Athens; from the ravages of the Greek War of Independence, through the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the formation of the Greek and Turkish Republics, and the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War; through a very rich tapestry of births, marriages and deaths for the main female protagonists – Dimitra Lamartine, her grand-daughter, Sophia, and Eleni Stephenson, with whom the story starts and ends; across some of the most fascinating incidents of action and intrigue that I’ve read for a long time; and all set against the beautiful colours with which Kathryn herself embroiders the world of exotic textiles.

I enjoyed the book very much, and I know that it will appeal to a very wide audience. Hopefully, Kathryn Gauci will gain the recognition she richly deserves for this excellent story and will go on to tell many more.

Review by The Just About Average Me:

I adore sagas, big, fat epic stories covering generations of family members across a nice chunk of geography. Even better when said saga is a single book, hefty in your hands, weighty with promises made and promises delivered, without the jolt of a cliffhanger ending requiring me to wait—and purchase—the next installment. Instant gratification, please, and a lot of it. Alas, these wonderful sagas are thin on the ground.

But wait…look what I found, purely by a fortuitous happenstance: a marvelous tapestry [no pun intended, well, maybe] of the eastern Mediterranean world beginning with the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, an event overly romanticized by the 19th century Romantics Byron and Delacroix, through the fall of the Ottomans, not with a bang but a whimper, and then the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II.

The history forms the warp and weft of this tapestry, but it never rises above its supporting role, nor does it tap the reader on the shoulder and say, “Look how much about X you’re learning!” The true beauty of this novel arises from the varied silken threads woven over and under and through the weft of history, some of those threads shining with hope, beauty, and the rosemary-scented days when there is peace, while others are stained through with blood, pain, and loss, stretched until they snap…almost.

The analogy of threads also extends to the tethers linking the three main protagonists through their turbulent histories, together with the complex, colorful embroideries they created in fact or by analogy—these ladies are far beyond the counted cross stitch fad of the 1980s.

The novel almost generates sensory overload—strong, evocative appeals to smell, touch, sound, and feeling, too often ignored, unfortunately. In the author’s skillful hands, these sensory treats are as much a part of the story as the words you read. In other words, there is a veritable wealth of Byzantine bits to savor along the way, so don’t overlook them.

I found the juxtaposition of Dimitra Laskaris’s delicate crystal saucer and embroidered napkin and the old seer’s dire prophecy as the Ottoman Empire was ending to be particularly illustrative of the tension throughout the book—for nearly each interlude of peace and beauty there is one or more of death and destruction, of horror and loss.

Still, the women and their embroideries, stitched for themselves and for countless unfortunate, destitute women in the empire and beyond, survive, as sharp and shining as their needles. Make no mistake—Dimitra, her granddaughter Sophia, and Sophia’s granddaughter Eleni are not one-dimensional “strong, feisty heroines” of many forgettable historical novels. These women show from the massacre on Chios through the end of WWII in Greece that they are not too much apart from us, or as we might have been in similar circumstances. Not a Mary Sue in the crowd!

I rarely extol a historical novel because I can always find some inaccuracies to carp about, more than a baker’s dozen of pesky anachronisms, and all too often pedestrian writing. It’s much easier to write a critical review than a glowing one. However, folks, here is my genuine effort to praise a novel I loved, and one I’d encourage anyone to read at the first opportunity.