When I saw that Sofka Zinovieff had written a novel I knew that I had to read it. I’ve perused her non-fiction in the library, with the intention of bringing it home one day when I make a little more space on my ticket, because I could see that she wrote with such clarity, and such love for her subject.
But I was a little worried, not quite sure if I understood enough about Greek history to appreciate a novel set against its occupation and its civil wars.I dithered for a while, but in the end I couldn’t resist a novel that held so much promise. And as I read I realised that my worries were unfounded. I absorbed, and began to understand, that history through wonderful human stories.
First there was Maud: an expatriate Englishwoman who had married into a Greek family, adopted a new way of life, and raised a daughter.
Maud’s husband, Nikitas, died in a road accident. And his widow was grief-stricken and, as she came to terms with what had happened. She had no idea why her husband had been driving at night, out in the country, and as she tried to work things out she realised that there was a lot she didn’t know about her husband.
She knew that he had been charismatic, erudite, respected by his peers. She knew that she had been his third wife. But she wanted to understand his history. Why he had abandoned by his mother when he was a baby, to be raised by his aunt.his mother had abandoned him when he was a baby, leaving him to be raised by his aunt, never seeing him again.
And when her son dies Antigone realises that it is time to return to her homeland. though she knows it will not be easy. When the Nazis occupied Greece, Antigone, and her brother Markos, joined Communist insurgents to fight against the occupying forces. Their sister, Alexandra, was horrified and her Nazi sympathiser husband, Spiros was happy to inflame the situation. In the end there had been a tragedy, and relationships were shattered.
The story moves between Maud and Antigone, between past and present. Through momentous historical events, through complex human relationships, through terrible, moral dilemmas.
It’s a big story, full of history, full of humanity, full of change, and yet it is always lucid, always compelling.
It gave me some understanding of what it might be live through occupation and civil war, how families can be torn about, how so much can be lost, how the past inevitably shapes the present.
And it brought Greece to life: the food, the streets, the climate, the communities, the politics. The contrast between Maud, an Englishwoman who had joined a family and made a life in Greece, and Antigone, a Greek woman who had left a family and made a life abroad, was striking and added depth. As did the different experiences and perspectives of three different generations.
It was the characters that made the story sing: intriguing, fallible, utterly believable human beings.
The only thing I didn’t like was the occasional sense of contrivance, of the story having to be rounded. But that was easy to forgive when there was so much to love, such a wonderful story of history and humanity.
It really is an accomplished debut novel.
And now that I have read it I will definitely be bringing home Sofka Zinovieff’s non fiction …