Victoria Hislop's latest novel is a story about love, loyalty, family, war, politics and Greek history all blended into an easy and accessible read.
The story is set in Thessaloniki, in Greece where, in the early part of the last century, Victoria Hislop tells us: "Thessaloniki was a place of dazzling cultural variety, where an almost evenly balanced population of Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted and complimented each other like the interwoven threads of an oriental carpet". However, the threads started to unravel during the Greco-Turkish war, when a large number of Muslims left Greece, and further unravelled during the Second World War, when the Jews were tragically removed during the Nazi occupation.
The story centres on Dimitri Komninos, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant who is a native of the city, and Katerina who comes to Greece as a young child, a refugee, separated from her mother, during their flight from Asia Minor when their home in Smyrna is destroyed by the Turkish army. As Dimitri and Katerina grow up, Katerina trains to become a seamstress, creating beautiful garments for the rich, whilst Dimitri studies medicine and becomes interested in the Communist Party. Life is not always easy, but with the invasion of their city by the Italian Fascists and then the Germans, Katerina and Dimitri become horrified witnesses to war and to ethnic cleansing. This causes Dimitri to become much more politically active and to join the resistance movement and, whilst this may not be an obviously romantic context for their love story, it is an exciting one.
As the lives of Dimitri and Katerina become further entwined, we learn not only about them and their growing and changing love for each other, but about the story of Thessaloniki itself, about how and where we live can shape and define us, and about how political changes can impact on ordinary families and change their lives completely. It is also about how the past cannot be forgotten and about how what has gone before impacts on life in the present.
This book was a gift from a friend and I must admit that, initially, I wasn't sure I would enjoy it. However, after a few hours curled up on the sofa, I have changed my mind. This isn't a great literary novel, but it is an absorbing story with characters you can warm to and an interesting lesson in Greek history too. There is a real sense of time and place with this novel and it would make a great weekend or bedtime read. Book your place on the sofa.