The House On Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff
Antigone Perifanis lives in Russia in 2008. She’s Greek by birth but was forced to leave her home many decades previous due to her strong Communist beliefs. She was forced to leave her only child behind, a son whom she named, Nikitas. Now, some 60 years later, Antigone gets a phone call from Nikitas’ English wife, Maud, to say that her husband has died in a car crash. The Greek Communist, rebel and mother returns to her homeland to mourn and bury her son.
Maud is in love with Greece. As an impressionable young woman she visited the country to study. It was then she met with the charismatic Nikitas. Eventually, the pair fell in love and Maud moved to be with her journalist husband, a man with passion, principle and a painful childhood. But Maud knows little of the truth behind her husband’s upbringing. It’s only when he dies that she’s forced to confront what really took place and the events that transpired to separate a toddler from his beloved mother.
Maud has a teenage daughter, Tig. Life for her and her older step-brother, Orestes, is tough. Greece is in economic and political turmoil. There are riots across Athens almost daily and Maud and Orestes feel duty-bound to take part. They are following a proud family tradition without knowing it. Their grandmother and her brother also rebelled against corporate and Capitalist control. Antigone and Markos were virtually inseparable as children, the younger brother idolising his sister who cared for him immensely. Their older sibling, sister Alexandra, was a different kettle of fish. Pragmatic and less prone to fanciful notions as she saw them, of freedom and justice, Alexandra formed a partnership with the shadowy Spiros, a young man from a family of racketeers who sided with the Nazis during the Occupation of Greece.
Antigone and Markos, however, took a very different approach and joined with the Communists to help the British fight the Nazis. They suffered for their efforts. After the war, when the occupying forces from Germany had been replaced with those of Britain, civil war broke out. Those who had helped the Nazis became favoured by the British and American forces in defiance of the Soviet Union. Like Ireland and Spain, families were torn apart as Socialists and Capitalists fought for the soul and future of Greece. Markos died by the hands of his fellow Greeks.
Antigone was arrested and gave birth to her baby boy in prison, the child being raised with others in the facility. But eventually an amnesty was agreed. If the prisoners renounced their communist beliefs, they would be released. Of course, Antigone would be forced to leave Greece, as even the remaining members of her family had turned their backs on her. Stay in prison and lose her child (children were being take from parents), or give him up to family members and leave Greece forever. Nikitas found himself without a mother and under the care of his stern aunt Alexandra and her abusive husband, Spiros, now a cop. These were the events that shaped the man Maud was to marry.
As the intrepid Englishwoman digs into her husbands past, she reflects upon her own relationship with him, and wonders. Meanwhile, Antigone is determined to find the burial place of her beloved brother, secretly interred after his death by the fascists. She is helped by Dora, a comrade from during the two wars. There is also the not-so insubstantial issue of Alexandra and her relationship with Antigone. Then there is also the nature of Nikitas’ death, in a road accident. Was it all it really seemed?
This is a wonderful novel based upon a Greek family saga. It takes us through Greek history. From the expulsions of both Christians from Turkey and Muslims from Greece, through the Second World War and on to the Greek Civil War, it’s a sensitive and informed exploration of the past of a very troubled and complex nation. It’s absolutely beguiling.
Based as it is upon some real lives and events, The House On Paradise Street has something for everyone and not many books can say that. OK, there are no spaceships or aliens. There’s not a zombie to be seen, nor a vampire or werewolf. There are ghosts, however, those of the people lost to war and times lost, and it’s these memories and apparitions who dominate this story. Civil War is an awful business and no one ever really wins. The pain and scars are carried on to future generations. Those who dominate feel shame and those who suffered the most feel anger and resentment. Greece was no different. Rebel Voice has no doubt that Greece, like Ireland, is still wounded from the effects of its internal war and will be for a long time to come.
The character list in this novel is sizeable but manageable. The characters are mostly consistent and believable. Antigone’s behaviour, at times, is questionable in terms of whether or not anyone would have done certain things that she did. Would a mother abandon her only child as Antigone did? Or would she, instead, pretend to agree to a deal before attempting to take her child back at another time? She would have been justified.
Maud is a strong character and easy to relate to. Her children (daughter and step-son) are a tad impulsive but then the young so often are, and do not always behave with logic in mind. Greece comes across as a beautiful if emotive place full of fiery citizens. The story is certainly an eye-opener for anyone not versed in modern Greek history. Rebel Voice imagines that there will be many unaware of the war between Communism and Fascism that played out in Greece after the conclusion of WW2, or the role the US and UK played in facilitating a dictatorship in their efforts to defeat Soviet interventions. Stalin, for his part, effectively turned his back on the Greek insurgents and left them to suffer and die at the hands of right-wing warmongers. It really is a Greek tragedy.
As the true story about Antigone and Nikitas becomes known to Maud, and as the political environment heats up further, we begin to wonder who exactly the father of Nikitas was. We find out, and it’s this realisation that compounds the pain we eventually feel for Antigone and the sympathy engendered for her plight. It’s a poignant and heart-rending tale of family loyalties, divisions , suspicions and reconciliation. No one does it quite like the Greeks.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. This timeless story relates the lives of the Perifanis family, from how they were formed to how they were almost destroyed as Greece sought to self-destruct. It has two threads, one related by Maud and the other by Antigone, strands which wind through one another to eventually become one. This story may leave you with a slight ache in your heart. That’s either the sign of a good book, or cardiovascular trouble. Give it a go and see which it is.