I picked up this book expecting to be transported to the blazing heat, buzzing cicadas and dazzling, cream-white architecture of Greece; indeed I was, but the journey that ultimately made the greater impact was the one that led into the dark heart of a period about which I knew nothing, the country’s occupation by the Nazis and the subsequent civil war. In fact, this novel takes the reader to some pretty grim places that I wasn’t expecting, but by the end it had inspired me to go and learn more about the violent events that almost tore the country apart.
The view of the macrocosm comes later: the novel begins with a single death in the modern day. Nikitas’ colourful life comes to an abrupt end one night when his car comes off the road and plummets over a cliff. Maud is the English wife he leaves behind, and she decides to carry on with the project her husband was working on before he died, researching his family history. There is one mystery that appears never to have been solved: what exactly happened to his mother before she abandoned him and left Greece for Russia when he was a mere toddler.
There are two people’s stories running concurrently here – Maud’s, as she struggles to cope not just with her grief but with the gradually dawning realisation that there are people around her who know much more about her husband’s past than they’re letting on, and that of Antigone, Nikitas’ long lost mother, who has spent her entire life in exile and estranged from her family. In the chapters of the book devoted to Antigone she tells her life story, sharing the traumatic events in which she participated during the war. As a Greek Communist, she joined with other Stalinists in an attempt to rise up against the country’s Nazi occupiers – you can probably guess that her decision has several tragic repercussions for herself and those close to her.
Choosing these two voices, Maud’s and Antigone’s, really serves to highlight the complexity of the moral struggle endured by the family – and country. On the one hand, Antigone puts forward a very particular view of events as seen through an unwavering political conviction. Maud, on the other hand, is something of an outsider who has played no part in the country’s turbulent history. Her life in Greece is not one of political activism; rather she is surrounded by people who hold all manner of viewpoints, and most significantly, people for whom the militant Antigone is not a patriotic hero but a betrayer of family and friends. After hearing everyone’s stories we have no choice but to conclude that there is no black and white – after all, is any war ever completely black and white? – but there is a real sadness in the fact that even the closest families can be split irreparably by each side’s inability to see things from the other point of view. Antigone, her siblings and parents each held fast to their beliefs for a lifetime, and the result was a lifetime apart.
I have to say this book was not what I expected at all, but in the end it turned out to be so much more substantial than I’d anticipated. Of course it’s a work of fiction, but nonetheless I feel I’ve learned a little bit of history along the way. It’s a definite thumbs-up for this one from me!