The Silver Thread
Inspired by a real historical artefact, The Rajan Quilt, sewn by women convicts on their way to Australia, this novel moves from Ireland to the penal colony of Australia to England. It is 1841, and Rhia Mahoney has travelled to London after a huge fire destroys her family business and leaves her father badly injured. Her woes are added to by the mysterious death of her merchant trader uncle, but did he really commit suicide? Full of twists and turns, yet never losing credibility, the book does not slacken in pace from beginning to end.
The research is meticulous, and the characterisation is very strong. The heroine Rhia, although independently minded and intelligent, is of her time and not too modern that she seems out of place. The parts aboard the ship are in particular beautifully rendered until we can almost smell the fetid atmosphere for ourselves and get a sense of what life must have been like for these women facing an unknown destiny far away from everything they have ever known. We also see Rhia’s inner thoughts as she writes a diary addressed to her dead grandmother in an attempt to make sense of the world around her. There are many other facets to the plot: the opium trade, the penal system, pattern design, Quakers, the linen trade and the effect of the advent of machines upon the hand workers, all of which adds up to a satisfying, thoughtful and absorbing book. This is Fitzpatrick’s third novel, and I will be looking forward to the next.