A Single Thread: Stunning prose that will stay with you for a long time

Book review: Tracy Chevalier’s novel on the consequences of war may be her best yet

American-British novelist Tracy Chevalier. Photograph:  Roberto Ricciuti/Getty

American-British novelist Tracy Chevalier. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty

In the aftermath of the first World War, as Great Britain mourned a generation of lost men, the media coined a term for the women who would have married them – “surplus.” The 1921 Census of England and Wales reported an estimated 1.72 million more women than men and it became clear that the fortunes and fates of these “surplus women” would impact society in dramatic ways. This new demographic of single women would have to become financially independent and establish new methods for acquiring status in society beyond that of wife and mother.

Tracy Chevalier’s 10th novel, A Single Thread, is narrated by Violet Speedwell, a fictional surplus woman of the time whose perspective allows us to understand the practical realities of her plight. Through a thoughtful and arresting account of her struggle to curate a new post-war identity for herself, we understand that Violet is one of thousands of women on the brink of starvation physically, emotionally and culturally. As Violet says, “If she was to make a mark on the world, she would have to do so in another way.”

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