"The Sewing Machine" by Natalie Fergie is beautifully and poignantly written and a complete joy to read. A multitude of characters grace its pages, across a time span of more than 100 years. Each one is a member of one of two ordinary families living and working in decades ranging from the 1910s to to 2010s. "The Sewing Machine" reflects the experiences of four different generations, and as it delves into their ordinary lives, it reveals some rather extraordinary secrets. The story is set against the backdrop of Scotland's two major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are described in such detail that those who know them well will recognise familiar streets and landmarks and be able to place themselves among the characters as they go about their daily lives. The historical accuracy adds greatly to the integrity of the book.
Starting in 1911, we meet Jean who works in the Singer factory in Glasgow testing sewing machines as they come off the line. She is about to join a mass strike of workers, but has little idea that the implications of her actions will be lifelong and life-changing. Skip forward to 1954 and we are in Edinburgh with Connie and her mother, a home seamstress. Family tragedy causes Connie to reassess her situation and sets her on a path which will inevitably cause the fates of two families to collide. Then there is Ruth. It is the 1980s and she is a trainee nurse, struggling to hide an unwanted pregnancy so that she can complete her course and make a life for herself and her unborn child. Come right up to date, to 2016, and its the life of Fred we are following. Returning to Edinburgh in his mid thirties, after time away living and working in London, he faces an uncertain future and a lack of direction. That is, until he discovers a treasure trove of family documents hidden in the base of his grandmother's sewing machine.
Seemingly disconnected, the lives of these four characters and their families unfold across the pages of "The Sewing Machine" as the reader learns what it was like for each one of them making a life and a living in their own time. We get an insight into the changing roll of women over time, of the impact of war on families and communities more widely, of the prejudices faced by unmarried mothers, even in the latter part of the twentieth century, and of the day to day struggles of a life with which we are much more familiar, in the near present day.
Whilst "The Sewing Machine" comes to focus on Fred's attempt to unpick the secrets of his family history, there is no inevitable end point as the narrative moves back and forth across the decades. The reader only finds out at the same time as Fred, the fragments of history that will eventually complete the big picture of his family's past life. There are surprises along the way and, even at the end, one unexpected, final reveal that places the last piece in the jigsaw. "The Sewing Machine" is an uplifting book and a great read and delivers far more than its title might suggest it will.