I liked the competent and clear narration. Given the fifty year span of history there was a lot to get through and it was important not to get confused. The story sped along (the Guardian called it a fast-paced narrative).
However, the need to cram so much into the space of a single novel meant that the story felt a little superficial, as if the characters were skimming the waves of history. There is a concept in creative writing called 'psychic distance' (in The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner defines this as “the distance the reader feels between himself [or herself] and the events in the story”) It can also be explained in cinematic terms. Cinematographers use Long Shots which are great for establishing shots and showing the characters in the context of their surroundings, Medium Shots to show how a character acts, and Close Ups to show the reactions and emotions of a character. This book used mostly Long and Medium shots. This meant that I learned about the characters from outside. Often the author discussed their motivations when explaining why a character did what they did. There was a relative lack of Close Up and Point of View shots.
Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction talks about the contrast between what he calls the 'pictorial' way of describing things and the 'dramatic' way. Picture is highly narrator-driven; the reader receives information directly from the narrator; it is much more economical than the scene, being able to take in vast tracts of time and space in a very few words, but it is thinner and much less vivid. In these terms Hislop made much more use of picture than drama; this was probably inevitable given the scope of her book but the result was that it was substantially less vivid than it might otherwise have been.
For example, in chapter five a Greek soldier is watching a panicking crowd of refugees fighting for a place on a boat before the Turks arrive. If he, a soldier who has partaken in unspecified acts (but we presume to be rape and murder of civilians), is caught he will probably be brutally killed. But he is quite dispassionate about all this, reflecting calmly: “He could not leave. With all the crimes that weighed on his conscience, how could he push in front of any other man, woman, or child? There was not one person here who did not deserve to live more than he. In all those months of the campaign, the soldiers had been swept along on a tide of hatred and self-justification, but now it was self-loathing that tore at his heart.” What he is thinking is what he should be thinking. How he is thinking doesn't work for me. I don't want melodrama but this book seems to have sucked all the emotion out of the characters.
Throughout, the voice was that of the author. This was despite the fact that this was a framed narrative. The voice I should have heard was that of the two grandparents telling their grandson what had happened to them. But their voices were absent.
Dialogue was very formal. Despite the circumstances which one might have thought would lead to extremes of emotion which would be likely to produce incoherence, the dialogue was always articulate. Furthermore, each character almost always responded to what the other character had said which is very rare in natural dialogue.
Character development was almost totally absent. Goodies stayed goodies and baddies stayed bad. When a good person did something that they became ashamed of it was because they were not strong enough to resist the pressures on them. So there were dilemmas posed but the characters resolved them rationally. Very few characters had a three dimensional personality: they were 'flat' in E M Forster's terms (Aspects of the Novel).
There were some great lines. She sets out her stall on the first page. Thessaloniki, we are told, is “a place of dazzling cultural variety, where an almost evenly balanced population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted and complemented each other like the interwoven threads of an oriental rug.” (C 1)
There are some very precise observations:
- “Olga stood at the stove stirring her husband's coffee and observed that it took precisely the same amount of time for his anger to reach boiling point as it did for the dark liquid to rise in the briki.” (C 4)
- “What struck her most forcibly was that his walk had virtually broken into a run. He could not get away fast enough.” (C 4)
- “An old man scratched his head as if, somewhere inside his skull, he had vital information.” (C 11)
- “She even managed to provoke sympathy for the lugubrious Esther Moreno, who wore her sourness like a dowdy dress.” (C 15)
Some of these contain a sardonic poke of sarcasm:
- “He greeted each morning with expectation and confidence. Everything seemed to be going his way. He was a giant in his hand-made size five and a half shoes.” (C 16)
The next one is both a perfect observation and a highly symbolic icon:
- “On the table, a vase of flowers. They had been fresh many days ago but dry petals now lay in a circle round the base of the vase. The daisy skeletons were almost sculptural and cast a crisp shadow on the table.” (C 9)
There are some moments when she seems to encapsulate truth in an insight:
- “He found the scent of the city's subculture unexpectedly alluring and wondered how the bourgeoisie could be so contented with dinners in expensive Europeanised restaurants or with soirees in grand houses, when close by was a culture of such emotional rawness.” (C 16)
- “Everyone had a point of view and no one was wrong.” (C 19)
- “She and all the women here had a triple role. As wives, mothers, and elegant shadows.” (C 24)
June 2019; 454 pages