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Michael Sala, The last thread (Review)

February 1, 2012
Michael Sala The last thread bookcover

The last thread (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

It’s clear why Affirm Press chose a comment by Raimond Gaita for the front cover of their latest publication, Michael Sala’s autobiographical novel, The last thread. Gaita, for readers here who don’t know, wrote an award-winning memoir, Romulus, My Father, about growing up as a migrant with mentally unstable parents. Sala’s story is different but both boys suffered emotional deprivations that they chronicle in their books … except, and this is a big one, Sala’s book is classified as “fiction”, and we must therefore read it as such. A bit, in fact, like Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue!

So, what is his story? The novel is told from Michaelis’ (later Michael’s) point of view. It is divided in two parts: Bergen Op Zoom and Newcastle. It starts, then, in the Netherlands when Michael is around three or four years old, and his brother, Con (Constantinos) three years older. But it’s not quite this simple, as in the first part which is told third person we follow them from the Netherlands to Australia to the Netherlands and then back to Australia. The family’s unsettled state physically – they also move multiple times in Australia – works metaphorically too because there is little emotional stability in the boys’ lives. At the start of the novel, the mother has left the boys’ father, the Cypriot Phytos, and is living with the physically and emotionally abusive Dutchman, Dirk. (“There’s no problem”, Michael writes of this handyman stepfather, “that he can’t solve with his hands”.) By the end, when the boys have grown up, the mother has been married a couple more times. She is skilled, you would say, at choosing wrong men: “The men in my life take advantage of me”, she says.

What makes this somewhat age-old story compelling is the writing. It is told more or less chronologically but in little vignettes. The two parts are divided into chapters, but the chapters themselves are broken into smaller sections that provide an eye into scenes from Michael’s world. It’s a child’s eye, until near the end, so we readers must try to fill the gaps between what Michael describes and what we know could be the meaning behind what he’s seeing. Why, we must ask ourselves, would a young boy think this:

Michaelis can’t imagine anything more frightening than living forever.

And Michael’s eye, though a child’s one, is very observant. He particularly notices faces, watching them it seems for signs of warmth and connection, but

Each time light blazes from the screen, it washes across Con’s face and reveals it like something carved from stone.

and

She [mother] holds her belly and sighs, and there’s a look in her eyes as if she might burst into tears.

I could be mistaken but it felt to me that as we moved through the second part, Newcastle, which is told first person by the adult Michael, the chronology became more disjointed, mirroring I think Michael’s growing awareness of what lies behind the dislocations in his family, and of its impact on him.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, there are secrets in this family that contribute to the dysfunctional behaviour. These secrets are not mentioned on the backcover, so I won’t mention them either. Sala handles them well. He doesn’t labour them but rather lets them hover in a way that we know they are there but that doesn’t let them occupy centre-stage. We learn to live with them, the way the family has to. In the way of modern novels, there’s no dramatic denouement …

In talking of the writing, I’ve mainly discussed the narrative style but I should also mention the language. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Here are just two descriptions that convey Sala’s ability to capture the essence of things. First, being dumped by a wave:

There is such strength in the sea. He has forgotten it until now. It pulls at his limbs so that his feet touch nothing and only his desperate grip keeps him there. A sensation comes to him of being separate, of seeing it all from a great distance as if he cannot reach out and touch the world. Then the noise dies in his ears, the sky appears again above him.

And next, of his mother’s house:

The rooms and corridors of my mother’s house became like the arteries of a heart attack victim, all clogged up. Even the breeze had to bend in half to get through.

I’ve read quite a bit of autobiographical/biographical fiction, fiction-cum-memoirs, and memoirs in recent months, and some I’ve found a little wanting here and there. This, though, is hard to fault – if, that is, you like reading more for the interior than the exterior, for what’s going on inside rather than for what’s happening in the material world.

In the very last pages of the book, Michael’s mother says that “words and stories can be dangerous” (echoing Francesca Rendle-Short’s “to think, to write, is dangerous”). They can indeed, but sometimes that danger can have positive outcomes. I hope that, for Sala, the dangers of putting his story, his truths, on the page will be restorative. There’s no guarantee though that such bravery will have its just rewards … in life or in fiction.

Michael Sala
The last thread
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2012
238pp
ISBN: 9780987132680

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 2:14 am

    You’ve been reading such interesting memoir/ fiction lately. I wonder, do you think this one worked so well because Sala decided to fictionalize it entirely so it allowed him more flexibility in how he approached everything?

    • February 2, 2012 7:51 pm

      Good question Stefanie. It certainly worked for him choosing this approach. I have no idea what are the “facts” of his life and what is not, but I think I have a sense of the emotional truths.

      BTW, I think Rendle-Short interspersing her first person memoir chapters also worked.

      The problem can be more when you fictionalise but you don’t take risks with the story or you are not brave with the emotions.

  2. February 2, 2012 8:10 pm

    Beautiful review, dear WG. You truly have such a way with words yourself. And yes, I do believe that speaking truth can have golden as well as sharp edges, but it can be a fine line to tread with the hearts of others are involved.

    • February 2, 2012 8:18 pm

      Thanks Hannah … you are right, it can be a fine line and I wondered as I read the book how his family would feel because he is very honest but, I think, generous to those he loves at the same time. Will they see that though is another question.

  3. February 3, 2012 9:01 am

    I love the prose style in the quotes you have supplied. Definitely on my TBR list. Thanks for the review.

    • February 3, 2012 10:24 am

      Oh great Karen Lee, I loved the prose style too … as you can probably tell! It’s accessible, evocative and fresh.

  4. February 3, 2012 12:44 pm

    Sounds intriguing!

    • February 3, 2012 8:17 pm

      Welcome, Plume of Words (great name btw). It is intriguing, particularly for people interested in how writers tread that line between fact and fiction in relation to their own lives.

  5. February 5, 2012 3:50 am

    Lovely cover. I see Affirm Press are establishing themselves as publishers of refined and to-die-for editions.
    I’m a sucker for a review that says the writer’s language is ‘gorgeous’, although Sala’s dark themes of dysfunction and domestic restlessness I would probably find hard to bear. Already the persona/character of the mother sounds compelling/repelling. Hope there is some balm at the end of it but sounds like a very good read.

    • February 5, 2012 7:10 pm

      I’m glad you commented on the cover Catherine, because I liked it too … and generally like the way these Affirm Press publications look. If you find dysfunction hard to bear this book might be a bit tricky for you, but his writing is “gorgeous” (I think).

      The mother is a troubled soul … but there are some very valid reasons for that. I’ll be interested to see if he mines his family more. I don’t really talk about much his older brother above, but he is also a very interesting character.

  6. February 6, 2012 4:48 pm

    Stellar review, as always. I see the value of Gaita’s quote in relation to this text. I am intrigued to read the fictionalised memoir – sounds fascinating!! I will comment further once I have digested it.

    I wonder whether you enjoyed Gaita’s memoir as much as you appear to have enjoyed this book?

    • February 6, 2012 8:26 pm

      Thanks Justine … I hope you do read it and will look for your comment and/or review. I have to admit though, that I haven’t read Romulous my father. I’ve only seen the movie, a poor substitute really because I’d love to see how Gaita writes and reflects it.

  7. Meg permalink
    March 5, 2012 8:30 pm

    Just finished The Last Thread and loved it. I can see the similarity between The Last Thread and Romulous my father. Michael appears to still be a troubled soul, and though this is understandable I want to know more. I would like to hear Con’s story. I have to wonder how much is fiction and how much is fact. Memories, in families I find, can differ quite dramatically. I hope Sala writes more about his memories either fiction or fact, and reveals what life has being for Tomo.

    Meg

    • March 5, 2012 9:26 pm

      Oh good, thanks Meg. It’s great when someone comes back to comment on a post when they’ve read a book, and even greater when it’s a book you like and that person likes too! I must say that I wondered what Con thought about the book. From the interview I heard I think quite a lot is fact – at least the childhood stuff, though I’m not sure about the end bit. He’s a good writer isn’t he? It will be interesting to see what he does next. Can he get into the heads of Con and Tomo I wonder?

    • March 9, 2012 4:07 pm

      I find it imposable to resist replying to these comments, as I may be able to shed some light on your questions. I feel it should go without saying that this is Mike’s interpretation of events and that’s not to say that it’s lies, but the mood of events are twisted to give an altered impression. I guess what myself and Con struggle with the most is the lack of showing some of the good times we shared as brothers, of which there were plenty, I’m guessing Mike chose to focus on one side of the story to sell the point of the book, thinking that somehow the good will muddy the waters of the bad. I’m sure even Con would admit that at times he made Mike’s life harder then it could have been (what older brother doesn’t do that?) but he feels that the book doesn’t accurately portray the good times they shared, both as kids and young men. From my point of view, the chapter on me doesn’t really misrepresent me altogether, I love that the bunk bed stuff is in there, it’s hilarious and all true, and yeah the weight stuff is also true (but I’m losing it now), the only difference is that I had a great childhood living with my dad, I had lots of friends and was never lonely, Mike would have had to of gotten the information from me so I guess it’s a case of he never asked and I never told. And again, me and Mike had some really fun times together and you just don’t get a sense of that in the book. Overall I proud of my big brother and what he has accomplished, yes it would have been nice if the book wasn’t a damning look at our family but you can’t have everything in life. I can only hope that Mike’s interpretation in the book differs to how he really feels because if you can’t focus on the good times, you are doomed to an unhappy life.

      Thomas (I dislike being called Tomo, I only let my family get away with it)

  8. March 9, 2012 4:54 pm

    Oh thanks Thomas for this wonderful reply. I hope that people reading the book and reading this blog do realise that it is fiction. My guess is that your brother wanted to make a point about the impact of parental/family behaviour on children and to do that he needed to exaggerate or perhaps it’s better to say to weight the story towards certain events/feelings in order to achieve that goal. This, I suspect, is partly why he chose to write it as fiction? BUT it does depend on readers reading it as fiction, doesn’t it? I must say that I got a nice sense of affection between the brothers even if his focus was on the harder times.

    I’m thrilled that you commented here. Thanks so much!

  9. nicole marie Nieuwland permalink
    March 12, 2012 12:44 am

    Well and here is a comment from the totally disfunctional mother ! My name is nicole marie and I wish to say something as I have never had a chance to do so to my son Mike. I admire his achievements in his life and for that I am truly proud. However…what I find intriguing is the fact that firstly Mike was heard on national radio by many friends and family to have said on the question of how his brothers and mother felt about the book that “they had read some chapters and were fine with it”. Unfortunately nor my self nor Thomas nor Con have EVER read a word of Mike’s writing. I have asked frequently over the years but was always told that Mike wanted me to read the book when it was ready. Neither were we aware that Mike used our names which is extremely confronting for us as a family. What i find interesting is that in Romulus my father (a book which I love) there is such a sense of love and beauty despite the traumas suffered. I think that as beautifully written as Mike’s book is it lacks to a large extend the opposing factor of sadness and pain, namely joy and happiness and beauty. I do NOT believe that one’s life is filled with mostly pain, to me this is a matter of attitude and awareness and insight into self and others. The book has caused me great pain..not so much because of how Mike has portrayed us but because of the lack of joy in his book. Yes our life as a family was not easy…but I think most lives are ..not easy except most people do not write about it and accept their lives from which they learn and grow. Have i been a good mother? No worse..no better than most I would say. I married at 18 and despite my deep love for the father of my 2 oldest boys the marriage could not be maintained because of the unbelievable trauma sustained by myself and the boys due to the sexual deviation of my husband..their father. Sexual child abuse remains by and large a tabou as do the repurcussions on children and families…35 years ago it was worse..especially in a very strict RC environment in which I resided at the time. Of course the drama shaped basically the rest of our lives and still now it haunts us as a family through this book. Yet through all the pain we suffered there was and is so much to be grateful for. Both Con AND Mike were ALWAYS loved by me their mother..were ALWAYS fed well and healthy…were taught many different aspects of life and living which many other kids/teenagers missed out on. I was and still am always on their side and I would think that my encouragement of them as children and young men have certainly helped them to reach the heights in their working lives and personal lives they both enjoy. Con has despite his incredible experience with a father he adored managed to create a wonderful life in Sydney. He was together with his partner Hannah for 11 years and despite their eventual break up My ex daughter in law remains one of my staunchest supporters and one of Con’s best friends. Mike was also married for a long period of time and his ex wife..the mother of my beautiful grandaughter indeed also remains one of my best friends and if it was not for her I would not see Olivia. I am filled with gratitude that I have been blessed with such fine young women as ex daughter in laws who over the years have become such wonderful and supportive friends. I encouraged Mike from when he was a little boy to write and follow his heart. I have spend countless hours listening to his stories and always admired his wonderful way with words. We all did. Yes..our life was different..restless…painful…but also loving and funny and full of good friends and food and great smells of baking and laughter and joy….except that Mike drove a heavy cart and still does. I have often thought that what he has resented most in me his mother is my abillity to find the valuable in a bad situation. We don’t learn from the best..we learn and grow from the worst. As for thomas..he was born 7 years after Mike and this posed a real thread to Mike and has continued to do so. Thomas had a gastric sleeve op some time ago and has already lost 70 kg..he has been incredibly brave and is turning his life around. He is a happy nonjudgemental and caring person who loves both his dad and his mum because I never made him choose. Hannah and lyn have expressed their surprise and anger about the 2nd half of the book because both have been part of our family for so many years and have a very different experience from what they read. I guess that is how it goes with these sorts of books. There are many sides to a story and there are different truths of course. Mike is a very able intelligent person who has extremely high expectations of himself…he has these same expectations from those around him and his family has never measured up because we are not perfect. We are just human beings..stable, unstable, sad, happy, angry. at peace, polar and by polar depressed and up . I could say a lot of things which would surprise the readers of the book but of course I won”t. What I will say though is that Michael’s lack of respect for his family ( by using our names without permission) has profoundly shaken me. Con Thomas and myself are blessed with a good self esteem and a great sense of self and that is helpful in this instance. All I can do as michael”s mother is view this tale of a “dysfuncional” family…with Grace and gratitude !

    • March 12, 2012 9:30 am

      Oh, Nicole Marie, thanks so much for your perspective. I have children who have a bent for writing and I have been stealing myself since they were quite young for the the things they might write! I think fostering a writer in the family is a very hard thing and I admire you for your attitude. I can totally understand how you feel. As a reader, I always got the sense that the boys were loved by their mother and I did get the sense that Michaelis was a sensitive child. That’s his burden I guess … I naturally also got the sense that the mother (and I’m saying ‘the’ here rather than ‘you’ to keep it in the fictional realm) had a very hard row to hoe and that through it all she had to make hard calls … She also had to work very hard to keep it all afloat. I found that impressive. It clearly wasn’t easy.

      You are probably right about the lack of joy in the novel, but we do sense love … And it’s surely a testament to you that he’s achieved what he has.

      Great news about Thomas and his health. And Con sounds like a real trooper, from what you’ve all said and from how Michael depicted him at the end. I liked the sense of brotherliness there.

      I understand how painful the book must be for the family … But for me, I say this is fiction and is about Michael working out his life. That means I don’t read everything in the novel as fact but as Michael expressing some of his emotional truths, so he’s heightened some aspects and subdued others to get his message across.

      I wish you well, and thank you again for responding here.

      • nicole marie Nieuwland permalink
        March 12, 2012 10:32 am

        thank you for your very thoughtful response to my comment on mike’s book.
        with gratitude..nicole marie

        • March 12, 2012 12:15 pm

          A pleasure Nicole Marie … I greatly appreciated your taking the time to fill in some facts and other perspectives. You’ve showed a generous spirit.

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