Thursday, July 19, 2012

The House on Paradise Street

by Sofka Zinovieff, Short Books (UK) March 2012

...a marvelous family story with the epic events of modern Greek history as its backdrop
Did you ever read just the right book at just the right time! For me The House on Paradise Street could not be timelier.  I am planning a trip to Greece in October and I had set out to improve my woeful understanding of Greek history, traditions and way of life.  I had read some nonfiction by Sofka Zinovieff and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to see a first novel that spanned Greek history through the twentieth century up to present day.  It is a marvelous family story with the epic events of modern Greek history as its backdrop.
The tale is told by two narrators, Maud an expat Brit, who is married to Nikitas Perifanis a Greek intellectual and Antigione his mother.  Events shift from the distant past to the present day.  The story opens with Maud dealing with the sudden death of Nikitas in a car accident.  Nikitas has maintained a fairly independent life and Maud is haunted by the fact that Nikitas had secrets unknown to her.  Antigione left Greece after the Greek civil war when the right wing faction took control of the Greek government.  Antigione had been a resistance fighter in WWII and a committed communist during the civil war. When she chose exile in Russia, she left Nikitas behind to be raised by her sister Alexandra.  The story revolves around the divisions in the family.  On the right Alexandra who had married Spiros, a policeman and fascist; on the left Antigione and her brother Markos both of whom chose the communist/socialist faction.  Markos is killed during the fighting and this keeps the sisters estranged as Alexandra holds Antigione responsible for involving Markos in the civil war.  They have not meet for 50 years until Antigione returns to Athens for Nikitas’ funeral.  The British intervention in Greek affairs is told through the character Johnny Fell, a family friend who spent time in Greece before the war when he tutored the Perifanis children. Fell then reappears as an undercover British agent during WWII and remains to support the rightist cause as the communists are beaten.     
This is a significant story that really doesn’t lend itself to a short plot summary.  Let me just say a few things about the plot.  It doesn’t feel contrived to me at all.  The author has believability in her writing that make events flow nicely.  The displacement of the Greeks from Smyrna in the 1920s is touched on by telling the story of Antigione’s mother and uncle who came to Athens after that sad event.   The author relates the events of the Greek civil war in a very even handed manner, leaving us with the clear understanding that everyone loses in a civil war – there is no winning side.  Families are ruined, bitterness takes hold and passing years do not really improve things.  The events in the present day (2008) where Nikitas’ children Tig and Orestes participate in the city wide riots bring home again the deep divisions in Greek society. The denouement is well done, a number of loose ends are tied up but the real problems and divisions in Greek society remain realistically unresolved.
The characters in this story are drawn with great depth and realism. The contrast between Maud a non political immigrant to Greece looking for the warmth of family connections and Antigione a willing exile from Greece who sacrificed all family  because of her beliefs could not be more compelling.   The passion of the Greek people for all things political comes through loud and clear.  There are few uninformed bystanders in the Greek democracy, for good or for bad everyone seems to have a deeply held opinion and is willing to take to the streets to display it.   This book gives some insight into Greece’s problems today and from my perspective gives some warning to the US and other countries where political parties can’t seem to find ground on which to compromise. 
So in summary (I know I’ve been a little long-winded here) read this book!  Even if you don’t love historical fiction, you’ll like this story.  If the Australian story is told in The Thorn Birds, the American civil war in Gone with the Wind, then Greece is well represented in this genre with The House on Paradise Street.

1 comment:

Zibilee said...

I think you bring up a really good point when you say that there are no winners in a Civil War. This sounds like an interesting book, and since I don't know a lot about Greece, it would most likely make for an interesting story for me, as well as an informative one. I loved this review. It was expressive and thoughtful as well as being very well written. Great job!