Monday, 1 January 2018

Emma's Review: The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

It is 1911, and Jean is about to join the mass strike at the Singer factory. For her, nothing will be the same again. Decades later, in Edinburgh, Connie sews coded moments of her life into a notebook, as her mother did before her. More than 100 years after his grandmother's sewing machine was made, Fred discovers a treasure trove of documents. His family history is laid out before him in a patchwork of unfamiliar handwriting and colourful seams. He starts to unpick the secrets of four generations, one stitch at a time.

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Many thanks to Unbound Digital for my copy of The Sewing Machine to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

They do say save the best for last and I think that is what I most certainly have done in choosing The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie as my final read of 2017. It perfectly rounded off another year of reading some fabulous books. I would have been such a fool to have left  this wonderful book sitting on my Kindle for too long, waiting for me to get around to reading it. The Sewing Machine comes from Unbound Digital which is a new and exciting innovation where authors share their ideas through the website Unbound which aims to get a better deal for writers. If there is enough interest in a book readers can pledge in advance and therefore the funding is secured for the author. Each person who pledges gets an acknowledgement in the book. Well thank goodness for this new creative way of publishing because without it I wouldn't have had the pleasure of reading such a marvellous book written in a most evocative, memorable way.

The Sewing Machine is a story told in multiple timeframes, three in all – 1911, 1954 and 2016. Don't be put off in thinking how can I ever keep track of three separate storylines with their own individual characters and storylines. I was relieved to find this wasn't a problem for me at all and I think this is partly due to the easy style of the writing. Each word and phrase is so carefully chosen to enable the reader to build up their own picture in their head of everything unfolding bit bit by bit. This is a lovely, relaxing read where the words just seem to flow over you and you become enveloped by the story and the three main characters, Jean, Connie and Fred. Each living during different times but yet there is a tentative connection that slowly begins to emerge and when the final reveal occurs it is oh so bitter-sweet yet stunningly done leaving the reader with a smile firmly engrained upon their face.

The book is essentially a series of snapshots into the lives of our three main characters with a Singer sewing machine at the centre of it. I was worried seen as I am not a big fan of sewing that some of the terminology or detail regarding sewing would put me off this story. So it's testament to the skillful research from Natalie Fergie around sewing machines and all things associated with it that I wanted to read on so absorbed did I  become in the story after several chapters. People often say I readily lost myself in the story and with this book I did just that once the charm of the story overtook me. I flew through it in a couple of hours and it was a bitter sweet goodbye when I read the final sentence. I had seen quite a few mentions of this book on the internet and how people had fallen in love with it. Admittedly for the first quarter of the book despite enjoying it I wasn't getting what everyone else seemed to think but then all of a sudden it just clicked with me and I began to appreciate what masterful storytelling was unfolding before my eyes. Such a simple plot line but so brilliantly written and infused with warmth, dignity, kindness and human understanding.

In 1911, Jean is 18 years old and working in the Singer Sewing  Factory in the Clydebank area in Scotland. She is engaged to Donald Cameron but still living with a brute of a father who makes her do everything. Unrest abounds as the workers want a fairer package and better conditions for the women who can get pushed around from section to section or made to do more work for the same amount of money. A strike ensues which in fact sets in motion a chain of events which will have repercussions for many years to come right up until Fred of whom we read about in 2016. Jean is a wilful person who follows her heart and Donald wherever possible through the good times and bad through the war and rearing a family. We follow Jean as the years pass by but it is something she did before she finally left the Singer factory for that one last time that will have a bearing on some lives and change them in the most remarkable way possible.

In 1954 Connie lives with her mother Kathleen and father Bruce. Her father unexpectedly passes away leaving both her mother and herself grieving and stirring up many memories. The sewing machine her mother has used for as long as Connie can remember helps them through the challenging times. Kathleen catalogues every piece she has sewn in a notebook. In doing so she builds a bank of memories that when one looks at a record in the notebook it stirs thoughts and feelings some good where as some may be best kept buried. A family history is being chronicled. Similar to Jean we follow Connie's journey as she grows older and things in her life change. She is happy to leave behind her boring office job for the sewing room of the royal infirmary. There is also a hint of mystery to Kathleen's story which intrigues Connie but she knows she can not rush her mother for answers. Similarly the same could be said for this book, nothing can be rushed. I wanted to know the secrets, discover the answers and connections, for there are so many, but this all takes time and patience and the author did this so effectively. She reeled me in ever so slowly and dropped hints here and there but I never fully solved or grasped all the clues and thankfully I didn't because it would have spoilt my overall enjoyment of the book. Instead I let out little gasps of surprise or acknowledgement when things revealed themselves and was then able to think oh that makes sense now and I understood characters actions and reasons behind doing certain things.

Finally we have Fred who writes his own blog in 2016. The blog is not for public reading but he puts his heart on his sleeve with everything he writes. I sensed as he knew no one could read the blog he just let go and poured his heart and soul onto the page. All his emotions and how he is battling through after the death of his beloved grandfather. In a way despite being an adult he feels abandoned by his mother as she has gone inter railing around Europe while Fred is left to sort out the flat. The flat in Edinburgh has been left to him by his grandfather. It may be outdated and not where his girlfriend would want to live but for Fred it was a place where he felt secure and safe and as he goes through his grandfathers things long held memories resurface. Before he knows Fred is on a journey back to find the person he was and can still be and to also uncover the secrets of the past. What better place to start than with a sewing machine?

A simple discovery sets in motion a chain of events, of recollections where secrets will emerge but can resolution be found for all? I thought it was brave of the author to have a main male character who had so much prominence throughout the book. Fred wasn't your typical lads lad and it was a joy to read of a softer side emerging. He went back to his roots although he didn't know he was doing this at the time. Everything he went though he needed to do to heal following the loss of his grandfather. There was a bigger picture waiting to emerge and it was special to read of Fred and the journey he undertook.

The Sewing Machine is a book that deserves widespread acclaim and to be read by many. I get the feeling that this has slightly slipped under people's radars and it really shouldn't have. It's that special kind of book that makes you really excited in wanting to tell everyone to read it  as soon as possible just so you can talk about it with them when they have finished reading. I can't quite believe that this a d├ębut novel so accomplished is the writing.

Natalie Fergie has written an incredible story that will stay firmed fixed in your mind for a long time. All the connections that unfold as the layers are peeled back bit by bit just reveal what passion and vibrancy had for her subject matter. It just left me with such a warm feeling inside. Every turn of the page brought more twists and surprises and made me realise what a special and rare kind of author Natalie Fergie is for writing such a stunning book. My only disappointment with this book was that it ended and I had to leave behind Fred, Jean and Connie. I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's a real gem that oozes charm and leaves you feeling positive about life.

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