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Turbulent Threads by Karen McMillan


Through the combination of colourful imagery, deftly rendered description and an attentiveness to historical detail, Karen McMillan’s novel, Turbulent Threads transports the reader into late nineteenth Dunedin wherein main protagonist Greer Gillies, who has been recently orphaned must forge a place for herself.

 

The sudden loss of her beloved father means Greer must now seek both a home and employment. The position she finds, working as a servant at Larnach’s Castle, is far beneath both her expectations and her capability as an educated and creative woman and talented musician. McMillan adeptly portrays the reality of a young woman of that time who must alone face the limitations of opportunity along with the challenges of social inequality, betrayal, and untrustworthy relationships. Greer’s strength of spirit, her perseverance and courage in pursuing where her talents lie, coupled with the rich friendships she discovers and fosters, develops a motif of optimism, within the novel, both for her and the position of women in this newly established world. The positive world of creativity is also a strong motif; I particularly loved the way Greer turns to her violin for relief, release and reflection during the hurdles she must overcome.

 

I was very much fascinated by the portrayal of the Larnach family from the position of a servant within the household. For the most part, our vision of this prominent and intriguing family has come through fiction and historical research which focuses primarily on family members, and I found this very different view to be insightful. Our initial view of Constance as a new and happy bride and William Larnach as her doting new husband is swiftly undercut by the spite of other family members and, as time progresses, Constance becomes increasingly lonely and isolated as is the castle itself, for all its beauty and grandeur. McMillan handles all of this with conviction as well as providing an understanding of the reality of a servant’s living conditions in terms of drudgery and loss of personhood. As well as that, McMillan provides a clear and honest representation of the inequalities within Dunedin itself of the time; the Devil’s Half Acre, where newly arrived immigrants lived, sometimes in squalor and poverty, contrasts markedly with the opulent homes of the wealthy.

 

Turbulent Threads unflinchingly demonstrates the difficulties and challenges which a woman was likely to face at a time of inequality where choices were limited and women on their own may be regarded as prey for the unscrupulous. This powerful, enchanting, and thoroughly enjoyable novel, however, also richly portrays the gifts which come from friendship, love and the power of the human spirit to survive and to thrive.


Reviewer: Paddy Richardson

Quentin Wilson Publishing

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