The Embroiderer

Reviews of The Embroiderer


A great book and addictive page-turner! Greek history through the eyes of three wonderful women: It begins 1822 during one of the bloodiest massacres of The Greek War of Independence in the island of Chios where a young Greek woman unsuccessfully tries to escape. We follow the path through World War I and the Catastrophe of Smyrna to the Greek resistance against the Nazis, suffering, crying, empathizing with those women who despite the odds have the courage to stand out. “The Embroiderer” is a fascinating family saga spanning several generations, allowing glimpses to a world we don’t really know. A “must” for everyone who loves historical novels!
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Dean Kalimniou gives an insightful review of Kathryn Gauci’s debut novel The Embroiderer

Kathryn Gauci and her début novel, The Embroiderer.

24 Mar 2016

DEAN KALIMNIOU

Κόκκινη κλωστή, δεμένη, στην ανέμη τυλιγμένη, δώσ’ της κλώτσο να γυρίσει, παραμύθι ν’ αρχινίσει.

The above traditional saying, when beginning a tale in Greek, signifies the fact that in the Greek context, a tale is not woven but rather embroidered.

Embroidery, one of the most ancient of the Greek arts and one of the most renowned handicrafts of Byzantium, enjoying an extraordinary flourishing between the middle of the 17th and the end of the 19th centuries, is thus deeply interwoven within the Greek psyche as a constituent of the expression of identity, in a manner as flexible as no other. For although styles and designs were transmitted either through commerce or marriage, strong regional patterns and techniques were preserved that persist in the common consciousness to the present day.

Greek embroidery was thus traditionally a vehicle for a community aesthetic. As such, embroidery is a means of study of the political, cultural and economic influences on the different regions of the Greek world and more besides. The decorative motifs were generally arranged horizontally, vertically, diagonally or in a circle with patterns repeating or alternating.

Kathryn Gauci, in her first novel The Embroiderer, has been able to capture not only this tradition as a phenomenon, but also its methodology, which she expertly employs in the embroidering of her own tale. Thus, a story of breathtaking intricacy arises from the various silken word-threads that she loops over, under and through generations of Greek history. At the time of reading, some of those strands appear disparate or unintelligible. Some recurring patterns take us on a journey of hope, renewal and almost inexpressible beauty. Others are dark, convoluted and dyed with the anguish of pain, fear and loss, so much so that their threads seem tortured and stretched, almost to the point of breaking. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

The analogy of threads also extends to the bonds linking the three main protagonists of the novel through their turbulent lives, together with the complex, colourful embroideries they created in fact or by analogy. It is only when the reader comes to the end of this magisterial work that it is possible to perceive, having followed the twists and turns of Gauci’s pen, threading across the pages, the overall pattern, which is of life itself.

It is high time that the traditional handicrafts or artistic traditions of Greece served as an inspiration for the production of literature, and in her work, Gauci acquits herself adequately, placing herself on par with Orhan Pamuk’s Red, a story inspired and revolving around the tradition of Ottoman calligraphy, or Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s Paper, a story revolving around the Persian art of paper-making.

There is an inherent danger in such an approach however. A steady hand is required so that the subject matter and the motif is neither exoticised to the point of triviality or orientalised to the point of offensiveness. In Gauci’s expert hands, the novel almost generates sensory overload-strong, evocative appeals to smell, touch, sound, and feeling – while remaining tasteful, restrained and highly disciplined. These sensory treats are as much a part of the story as the words themselves, as should be the case in a piece of skilled word-embroidery.

Of course, what juxtaposes Gauci’s work from other treatments of “oriental” handicraft is the fact that she refuses to be bound by borders, ethnicity, nationalism or time. Instead, her narrative embellishes and is embellished in turn, an international multi-ethnic and multi-lingual silken tableau that is a confluence of influences, conflicts and historical progressions. It is in her innate ability to highlight, shade, raise in sharp relief and parallel circumstances and characters, all the while achieving an equilibrium and mastery of pattern, that evokes and yet transcends definitions of tradition, without detracting from a highly-crafted narrative, that her true genius lies.

The narrative itself has an inexorable sense of rhythm that lends the work an ultimately cinematic feel. This is a story that cries out for dramatisation. A late-night call from Athens pulls a young woman from 1970s London to the bedside of a dying aunt, the last link to the mother she never knew. Visiting a hitherto unknown homeland, the tightly wound threads of her family’s past begin to unravel and she discovers a family history rooted in commerce and couture, intrigue and war, aristocrats and subversives. While embroidery is the thread that unites each successive generation, given that the family becomes skilled in embroidery and uses that skill to make a living, the family is blighted by a curse that determines the fates of all its members.

Unlike the contrived magical realism of the acclaimed Witches of Smyrna, which is overdone to the point of implausibility, Gauci’s foray into the realm of the paranormal is both cogent and credible. History here meets tragedy in the most classical of senses as the fatal flaw within the contrary character of one of the main protagonists brings about pain, destruction but ultimately, in loss, redemption. The sinuous path of fated, inescapable devastation is traversed via a narrative thread that takes us from nineteenth-century genocide, through to the rise of nationalism, the Balkan Wars, the First World War, the Asia Minor catastrophe and the Second World War. As history is made, four generations of legendary and yet redoubtable beauties struggle to protect themselves and their family from the vicissitudes of fortune.

The narrative weaves and wends back on itself innumerable times. The juxtaposition of Dimitra Laskaris’ delicate crystal saucer and embroidered napkin and the old seer’s dire prophecy as the Ottoman Empire was ending exemplifies the tension experienced throughout the novel, in that for nearly each respite of peace and beauty there is one or more of death and destruction. Nonetheless, the women and their embroideries, stitched for themselves, for countless destitute women in the empire and beyond, as well as for the highest echelons of Ottoman and Greek society survive, as sharp and shining as their needles. Matriarch Dimitra, her granddaughter Sophia, and Sophia’s granddaughter Eleni are thus not the stereotypical, yawnworthy one-dimensional strong, feisty heroines of many forgettable historical novels. Instead, these protagonists and the sum of their experiences – the massacre on Chios through to the end of the Second World War in Greece – appear remarkably contemporary.

Gauci’s sensitive focus upon the successive female generations of, to all intents and purposes, a matriarchal family, would lead one to argue that The Embroiderer is a feminist novel, in the sense that the indomitability of the main characters and the manner in which they pursue their interests causes a significant shift in the gender norms of an otherwise monolithically patriarchal society. Furthermore, given this is a historical novel, Gauci’s intergenerational treatment of her female protagonists renders her work a facilitator of an analysis of the Ottoman Empire and early modern Greece that takes issues of gender properly into account.

It goes without saying that by focusing almost exclusively on the females of the family, Gauci is questioning and transforming androcentric systems of thought which posit the male as the norm. Her saga could thus be seen as not only revealing and critiquing androcentric biases, but also attempting to examine beliefs and practices from the viewpoint of the ‘other’, in the process, objectifying women. Finally, in showcasing a group of enterprising and independent women, who through industry, flair and sheer brilliance are able to transcend the gender stereotypes for their age, for example by setting up successful businesses, taking lovers and even conducting clandestine intelligence operations, Gauci goes a long way in showing that existing inequalities between dominant and marginalised groups can be removed and that we can revise our way of considering the history and society in which the narrative unfolds, so that neither male nor female is taken as normative, but both are seen as equally conditioned by the gender constructions of their culture, as indeed we, the readers, are.

As a corollary, her portrayal of male characters is incisive and plausible, that of one of the protagonists’ Russian lovers being of infinite value, as it appears to be a ‘tame’ counterpart to the unruly and primal immortal White Russian refugee characters Junkermann and Colonel Liapkin, created by Karagatsis.
Embarking on a narrative of such temporal scope is not an easy task and occasionally, Gauci’s dialogue feels strained, as it appears that characters are explaining matters of context and history simply for the benefit of the reader. Despite this, Gauci expertly avoids being didactic. What people ate and drank, how they slept, worked, communicated, loved and lived within the framework of two religions, fundamentally different in philosophy, yet joined at the hip. All of this the author encourages us to appreciate in the course of her tale. Though over a century in scope, the pace of the narrative does not flag, nor is the reader tempted to skim over portions of the text; the excitement and tension of the plot is transmitted through the characters, all of whom are invested with uncanny authenticity, directly to the reader.

It is perhaps trite to state that the flow of people and the movement of ideas in the Aegean literal has been truly tidal, and The Embroiderer will allow the reader appreciate the profound fears and insecurities as well as the bad blood that have always underlain relations between both sides of the Aegean. The reader is especially made conscious of what happens as empires crumble: how the hatreds, which are largely subsumed in a working multicultural empire, rise to engulf both those who know their world is collapsing and those who see the chance to throw off the rule of the empire. Gauci’s description of the sack of Smyrna is a harrowing work of art of its own accord. All of the tensions and tragedies of the period are superbly portrayed in this book and the scope and the timescale are handled with great skill.

Such verisimilitude is vital as the narrative draws to a close, for if time, events and conditions were not depicted so faithfully, its ultimate resolution, which sees all certainties turned on their head, as a final revelation proves that while ethnicity, religious and social identity are certainly germane to the human condition, they are not absolute determinates of it, would not be nearly so powerful and moving as it is embroidered by the author.

The Embroiderer, remarkably, Kathryn Gauci’s first novel, is a must-read by all of those who would understand the eastern Mediterranean, embroidery and life itself. [/read]

*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.

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By David Ebsworth
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. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]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.[/read]


By Eleanor Parker Sapia
Gauci’s ‘The Embroiderer’ is an amazing debut novel about love, loss, and women’s courage in the face of adversity in exotic lands. Meticulously researched and a joy to read, this book will appeal to historical fiction lovers who are looking for something a little different. Wonderful book. I highly recommend ‘The Embroiderer’.


By The Just-About-Average Ms. M (North Florida)
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.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]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.[/read]


By Alan Hamilton
This is the first self-(indie) published book I have reviewed on my web site. When I looked at and opened the book, my reaction was ‘It’s a saga. Not the kind of book I normally read’. What a lesson I had. The adage, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, in my case is replaced by, ‘don’t judge a book by its blurb or its publicity’.
As I read it, it did everything the best novels should do.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]Even though the story spreads across much of the nineteenth and three-quarters of the twentieth centuries, the pace does not flag, you keep turning the pages, you’re not inclined to skip whole passages; the excitement and tension of the plot is transmitted through the characters directly to the reader. The characterisation, and this is an enormous cast, is excellent and the reader is drawn to care what happens to each of them. Any student of Mediterranean history will be fully aware that if the sea itself does not have tides, the flow of people and the movement of ideas in the area has been truly tidal, and will appreciate the profound fears and unease that have always underlain relations between the Hellenic west and Ottoman east – still present today in Cyprus. The reader is made conscious of what happens as empires crumble: how the hatreds, which are largely subsumed in a working multicultural empire, rise to engulf both those who know their world is collapsing and those who see the chance to throw off the rule of the empire. The description of the sack of Smyrna (Izmir) is a work of art of its own. All of these tensions and tragedies are superbly portrayed in this book and the scope and the timescale are handled with great skill.

The novel teaches without being didactic. Almost all readers will have little familiarity with Greco-Turkish cultures, so there’s much to learn. What people ate and drank, how they slept, worked, communicated, loved and lived within the framework of two religions, fundamentally different in philosophy, yet joined at the hip. All of this the author encourages us to appreciate in the course of the storytelling, I even felt I was there taking part in it all.

For me the hallmark of literature is when it fully engages my emotions. The author successfully draws out our pity for the tragedies, public and personal, she presents us with, and at the novel’s ending imbues us with such feelings of warmth and closeness to the remaining actors that it doesn’t seem at all improper to have tears at the back of one’s eyes.

The production values of this book from cover to cover match the beauty of the story and the way it is written. It is a flagship for self-publishing and sometime soon literary agents and publishers are going to rue missing this particular bus.[/read]


By Jenny Greenwell
Loved this book from start to finish. This book has it all mystery, romance, history and intrigue. It is a must read for even the novice reader, very easily explained. I just loved the plot and the wonderful characters portrayed throughout the book.


By Richard Vella
This is a fantastic and gripping read. I thoroughly enjoyed its plot and characters, all of whom are set against the backdrop of Ottoman society and Orthodox Greeks in the 19th and early 20th Century history. The detail to history, culture and artefacts is excellent. A great read.


By Leonie Coleman
Kathryn Gauci is a naturally gifted author. Her first book is a gripping story set amongst the struggles and bitter wars between Greece and Turkey over a long period of time and the families involved – from 1822 to well beyond 1919. Her vivid characters leap from the pages of expertly researched history and are beautifully intermingled throughout the entire book. It left me with a sense of satisfaction and did nothing but impress. I have no hesitation in recommending this enjoyable book.


I love historical fiction set in Greece and Asia Minor, and this book was not just a fine specimen in my opinion, but one of the best and most memorable books I’ve ever read in this genre. If you loved ‘Birds Without Wings’ by Louis de Bernières, this is unmissable! I was amazed by the intricate detail in the author’s descriptions of all different eras and places. I can only imagine the kind of thorough research this feat must have taken. The story was both compelling and enchanting, and I parti …more
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James Michener, one of my favorite authors, could have written a tale set in an Ottoman world, for he was fond of complex human identities and even spoke of the Golden Men in his best-selling novel, Hawaii. Kathryn Gauci’s The Embroiderer has much of the Golden Men in it – but here though, we should speak of Golden Women. Eleni Stephenson, the first woman we meet, is after all an impressive blend of Greek, French, Russian and English. Meanwhile, her Greek heritage bears an undeniable Ottoman inf …more
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“The Embroiderer” by Kathryn Gauci has been a marvellous find for me. It is just the kind of historical novel that I like to read. It is highly informative with a lot of political and cultural insights about a theatre of war I knew little about: The Ottoman Empire between 1822 and 1944 with a special focus on Greece and Asia Minor from 1912 onwards.
The story is spread out over several generations and illustrates multiple conflicts. An array of well-drawn characters make the wider picture person
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