Saturday, April 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: My Last Lament by James William Brown

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve been looking forward to reading My Last Lament by James William Brown. I know pretty much nothing about modern Greek history, and the blurb for the novel intrigued me.

Aliki is an elderly woman recording her "memoir" for an ethnographer who we never meet, who is studying the ancient folk custom of "lamenting" the dead. Visiting Aliki’s isolated village, the student was unable to witness Aliki in action, so she left behind a cassette player and some blank tapes. The result is this novel.

A lamenter is not exactly a paid mourner and not exactly a eulogizer, but something in between. Upon the death of a loved one, a lamenter is brought in to encapsulate the life of the deceased with a poetic remembrance. Aliki’s gift for lamenting came upon her all at once and she performs the task in a semi-trance, not really knowing where the words come from. This recollection of her own life, this encapsulation, is, in a way, her own lament.

Aliki was about 14 years old when the Germans took over her village. Early on, they executed her father for hoarding food, and she was taken in by a neighbor, Chrysoula, who had a young son, Takis. They grew up together and so shared a lifelong bond.

Chrysoula was a woman of action. In addition to Aliki, she also took in a Jewish refugee family from the city, a mother and son, Stelios. Stelios is a bit older. Aliki and Stelios fall in love.

Things are not going to work out well. Though the Germans are eventually defeated, they cause enough havoc in the town that the family is disrupted. Many of the villagers are killed. Then, unfortunately, Aliki, Takis, and Stelios find that post-war Greece is as savage and dangerous as occupied Greece.

Stelios is a skilled shadow puppeteer, and the three set off trying to earn their living by putting on performances, first in the city and then around the countryside. Aside from the dangers of the ongoing civil war, the cohesion of their little group is threatened by the animosity between Takis and Stelios. Takis is mentally ill and hounded by confusion and guilt over what happened back in the village. He’s also fiercely jealous of the relationship between Stelios and Aliki.

The novel serves as a tour of post-war Greece and an introduction to the political divisions that have brought Greece to the position it’s in today. The characters are sympathetic and the action is well paced. Readers may guess the secrets that drive the plot before the big reveal at the end, but that doesn’t detract from the story.