Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2023

One Illumined Thread (2023), by Sally Colin-James

Appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival in May this year, Sally Colin-James is the author of the historical novel One Illumined Thread — which was written with the support of the 2020 HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency Award, the 2020 Varuna PIP Fellowship Award, the Australian Writers Mentoring program, and the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival Mentorship Award.  Her work was also shortlisted in the 2021 First Pages Prize, and was completed with a PhD scholarship.

It is remarkable to see how much support this one novel has had, and it just shows that (although there’s never enough to go round, of course) there are some great initiatives in the Australian writing landscape to help emerging writers on their way.

The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli (1503) (Wikipedia)

Set in three time frames, from the Biblical era to the Renaissance to the present day, One Illumined Thread is linked by the artistic pursuits of three unconventional women.  The story begins in the present day with a small scrap of textile in the hands of an unnamed museum conservationist in Adelaide who believes that the tapestry might depict the visitation between the pregnant cousins, Saint Elisabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and the Virgin Mary.  This Renaissance painting by Albertinelli is now in the Uffizi Gallery but was originally in the chapel of San Michele alle Trombe in Florence.

All three women are childless and in need of consolation in one way or another.  The museum conservator’s adult son has died and her need to hide from an abusive husband back in Melbourne means that she confides in no one. In Judea Elisheva marries Zakharya but is childless in an era when this excluded her from the society of other women.  She takes up glass-blowing and creates a vial that conceals a message within.  In Renaissance Florence, Antonia’s parents marry her off to the much older Mariotto Albertinelli (1474-1515).  It’s an affectionate marriage despite his scandalous behaviour, but she is childless too and she takes up the quest to create the perfect white paint.  I enjoyed this strand of the story most, but, well, with my love of Renaissance art, I would, wouldn’t I?

I have a beautiful illustrated three-volume Folio Edition set of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but alas, it’s only a selection translated by George Bull and it doesn’t include Albertinelli’s story.  Vasari (1511-1575) was a painter in his own right, but he is renowned as the first art-historian and biographer of several Renaissance artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.  He invented the genre.  He was also an inveterate gossip and scholarship has shown that his entertaining anecdotes about the artists are not always accurate.  For the strand of the story set in Renaissance Florence, Colin-James has fleshed out Vasari’s description of Albertinelli as we see it at Wikipedia:

According to Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Albertinelli, the painter lived as a libertine and was fond of good living and women. Albertinelli reportedly had experienced financial problems and operated a tavern to supplement his income as a painter. At the end of his life he was unable to repay some of his debts, including one to Raphael. His wife Antonia, whom he married in 1506, repaid some of his loans.

Even readers who haven’t been lucky enough to visit Florence will enjoy the vivid descriptions of Antonia and her unconventional life, and the Judean strand seems well-researched and realistic, but the contemporary strand seemed to me to be a bit overwrought.  There were also a couple of high-tension moments in all three strands where the reader is ‘left hanging’ while the narrative reverts to another strand.  To my mind, these disruptions didn’t make the novel a page-turner, it made it occasionally manipulative and irritating.  But overall, One Illumined Thread is a striking debut and I suspect that many readers will love it.

Author: Sally Colin-James
Title: One Illumined Thread
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 9781460762103, pbk., 359 pages including Guides to the Aramaic Language Used, and to the Italian used, plus an extensive Author’s Note, and Acknowledgments, so the novel is really 332 pages in length
Source: Kingston Library

Image credits:

The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli – ; english Wikipedia,, Public Domain,

Two things to note if you are an author of historical fiction, aspiring, emerging or otherwise:

  • The 2021 First Pages Prize is an international award for authors who don’t have an agent.  It is open to un-agented writers worldwide, who enter their First Five Pages (1250 words) of a longer work of fiction or creative nonfiction. Winners receive cash awards, a developmental mentorship, and an agent consultation.
  • The Historical Novel Society Australasia has just announced that entries for the 2023 The ARA Group Historical Novel Prize are now open. Worth $100,000 in prize monies, the ARA Historical Novel Prize is the richest genre-based literary award in Australasia. It incorporates both an Adult category and a Children and Young Adult (CYA) category. The Prize is a celebration of historical fiction, and a real opportunity to foster the genre on a grander scale. Entries close on 14 June 2023. For more information, visit the HNSA here.


  1. I could be tempted.


    • I suspect you’d like it.
      You know, I could be wrong, but I wonder if an editor had suggested the contemporary strand as a way of making it relatable and perhaps more marketable than the Biblical/Renaissance strands alone? It feels a little bit ‘added on’ but it’s very well written all the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I couldn’t be tempted, as you might guess, but I’m glad, I suppose, that Aust writers are spreading their wings all over the world. There’s only so much that can be written about the Bush.


    • Oh, I don’t know about that. Have you ever read The Return by Korean-Australian author Silvia Kwon? It’s about the difficulties of reconciliation and redemption when an only son brings his Japanese war-bride home to the bush after WW2 when feeling were high and it wasn’t just racism, it was hostility about Japanese war crimes against the POWs. The father’s best mate died on the Thai-Burma railway line.
      It was very powerful historical fiction. We could do with more of that kind of histfic. And the histfic in the bush that Anita Heiss writes.
      Kwon has another historical novel in the pipeline, it’s about Van Gogh’s relationship with a woman called Sien. Art + historical fiction is (nearly always) a winner with me.


      • That tempts me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your notes on those two opportunities for writers of historical fiction. I have a manuscript that’s been close to completion for several years – somehow there’s always just a bit more work required!


    • Congratulations, that’s a mighty undertaking, whatever comes of it. (I never even got close to completing my now abandoned novel.)
      Good luck, maybe I’ll get to read it one day!


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