Sofka Zinovieff’s first novel, published in 2012, is remarkable for its evocation of place. The setting is the city of Athens, in two separate timeframes: 1942 and 2008. The protagonist, Antigone Perifanis, is a young woman when her country is riven by the second World War and then the terrible Greek Civil War; her decision to become a fighter in the resistance movement eventually leads to her exile from Greece. In 2008, she returns to Athens- to attend her son’s funeral, to meet his widow and children and to make her peace with the family that rejected her sixty years ago.
The two timelines are interwoven in the text, as Antigone writes the story of her past for her son’s widow, Maud, and her grand-children, Orestes and Tig. (She feels that she must explain herself to them: when she fled to communist Russia in the late 1940s, she left her 2-year-old son in Athens, to be brought up by her sister and brother-in-law – a painful choice that afflicts the family over several generations. ) The 2008 timeframe, the novel’s present, is narrated by Maud, the English woman who is Nikitas’ widow, the outsider in the Greek family.
It is Maud’s foreign background that enables her to be such an astute observer of place, of the Greek way of life. While Antigone is deeply enmeshed in her country’s violent history – her entire life has been governed by its ebb and flow – Maud is more detached and realistic:
Privacy and solitude are not Greek words… after a decade living at Paradise Street, I had become accustomed to the bustle and intimacy of our irregular extended family … living with relations in close proximity ; countless Athenian apartment blocks have half the doorbells with the same surname …
As an outsider, Maud is both more conscious and more critical of the accepted patterns of life in her adopted city. It is through her eyes that we see the rituals and traditions that the Greeks take entirely for granted: the extended period of mourning ; the beautiful archaeological remains that are uncovered in the most ordinary courtyards and gardens; the constant noise and frenzy that impede reflective thought.
The House on Paradise Street is a remarkable portrayal of a Greek family and a Greek city: well worth reading.