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The Sewing Machine Kindle Edition
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|Length: 320 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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In this wonderful novel, we encounter the full spectrum of this generational shift, starting with Jean and Donald, a young couple caught up in the drama of the Singer Factory Strike of 1911 at Singer’s huge factory compound in Kilbowie, Clydebank in Scotland. Nearly 11,000 workers left their posts in protest of the unfair treatment of 12 women workers and the factory was closed for 2 weeks. At the other end of the story is Fred, a thirty-something unemployed tech worker in the present day, returning to his family home in Edinburgh after his grandfather’s death. He has a self-absorbed girlfriend who embodies the superficial, throwaway society that Fred lives in and he struggles to come to terms with his own identity and his place in the world. Tying everything together is an old Singer 99K hand crank sewing machine that had belonged to Fred’s grandmother and the revelations of some unexpected family secrets. Other key characters are Kathleen and Connie, the mother and daughter who make their livings with sewing, Connie’s tender-hearted and gardening-mad husband Alf, and Fred’s mother Ruth, whose encounter with an elderly patient as a young student nurse will have a poignant impact on the story.
The story shifts back and forth in time, from 1911 through the First World War to the 1950s, 60s, 80s and present day. You might have some suspicions from the beginning about how everything is connected, but the mystery is less important than the moments and relationships it serves to frame. Some of the plot points and coincidences might beg our disbelief, and some of the characters could be more fully fleshed out (Ellen, especially, in my opinion), but overall I found I was willing to overlook these things as I got caught up in the story.
As the great-granddaughter of a widow who supported her family as a seamstress on her Singer treadle in the far-away Pacific Northwest, the novel was especially moving to me. Not only did it bring to life the living conditions of the working class in the 20th century, but also it reminded me of how little we can know of our own family histories, even only two or three generations removed. Secrets are never shared and get lost entirely, stories are forgotten or misremembered, values and interests change with the times. I never met my great-grandmother, who I was named after, and I can only imagine the changes she lived through in her lifetime and the challenges she faced. I don’t have her sewing machine, but when I see an old machine like the one in the story (usually still functional, as those machines were made to go forever) I think of all the hands that worked on it and all the projects that were made with it. Sentimental, yes, but if you think the same way as me, if you sew, or if you like a cozy story that you can get lost in on a rainy afternoon, you’ll enjoy this thoughtful, well-researched and heartfelt novel.
The strike changes the first owner, Jean’s life. A number of characters follow and I liked how the author weaves changing social changes and history into the lives of each ensuing character. Kathleen and her daughter kept a record of their sewing projects in notebooks which accompanied the machine. The likeable Fred, the final owner, was able to retrieve these coded messages, along with an important family secret. The machine itself becomes a metaphor or symbol of stability, an object capable of providing an income for its owners during strained financial times.
The only negative comment I have is I found the format of drifting between three different timelines and keeping track of numerous characters in each of those timelines a bit irksome. It was nevertheless an easy, enjoyable book with a good ending that explained all. My rating is 3.5