A Hundred Tiny Threads by Judith Barrow

Reviewed by Julie Barham

I received a review copy of this book from Honno Press, the Welsh Women’s Press, as I was intrigued by the idea of a book which swept through so much history through the eyes of one woman. Winifred lives and works in a shop in a grim mining town in 1911. Her parents own and run the general shop, and her mother’s sharp temper and determination to keep Winifred working mean that her horizons are, and always have been severely limited. Bill, a miner, is first seen trapped by a misplaced explosion in a mine, reflecting on his probable death and his dislike of his step-family. In many ways they are alike, but all the circumstances of their lives suggest that they will never meet, let alone come together. This novel is a family saga without the central family; personal dislike and forces beyond their control mean that these are two individuals struggling to survive in challenging social circumstances.

Winifred is tempted away from her home by chance meetings with Honora, an unconventional artist who has become an active worker for woman’s suffrage. This is not genteel campaigning but marches and protests which lead to violence and arrest, even death, for those women who become involved. I was not sure why Winifred becomes a speaker for this small group, but her absences from the shop annoy her mother and force her father to shield her. Winifred meets Conal, Honora’s attractive and clever brother, and becomes involved with him. She is horrified by her grandmother’s living conditions which have resulted from family losses and her own mother’s harsh unyielding personality. Developments within the shop and the campaign mean that Winifred becomes more isolated and more desperate.

Bill survives the accident but is unable to continue working at the mine; he travels away and encounters Winifred while trying to scrape enough to survive. He becomes entranced by her and takes desperate action to try and gain her interest. Terrible events graphically described force him into fighting in the War which is just as hideous as can be imagined. This is a novel which pulls no punches in describing death; I cannot say that there is much light or joy in any of its narrative.

This is an immense book which traces those pushed by events and a War which affected everyone in the country. The intense details leave little to the imagination as the struggle to survive is real and incrementally built as loved ones go and unyielding hatred makes loss worse. It is a layered view of life as characters find challenges on many fronts. Barrow has a keen eye for detail which builds up a feeling of reality in this chronicle of lives lived in harsh situations. The writing is painfully real and feels just as overwhelming as life; decisions quickly taken lead far into the story as a whole. This is apparently a book which precedes three others relating to the same family through several generations. Certainly it is just as diverse, with as many backstories and complicated feelings as real families tend to inherit. There are many elements of tragedy here as well as determined love and strands of hope. This is a superb book for those who like their novels immersive and intense, real life of people around them in times of trial and progress.

Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Judith Barrow, A Hundred Tiny Threads (Honno Press, 2017). 978-1909983687, 320pp., paperback.

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