Monday, April 03, 2017

My Last Lament by James William Brown, a novel of 1940s Greece

Aliki, a teenager in a northeastern Greek village in the 1940s, has an innate talent for singing dirge-poems honoring the deceased. After her father is executed by German soldiers, she’s taken in by Chrysoula, a neighbor woman with a son, Takis, who may be mentally ill.

Aliki grows close to Stelios, the young Greek Jewish man Chrysoula hides in her basement with his mother, and their bond makes Takis jealous. Then their household is betrayed, and violence erupts, forcing the trio into political chaos as civil war tears the country apart and Communist guerrillas roam the streets.

Because their characterizations are rather flat, Aliki and Stelios’ love story doesn’t attain the emotional heights it reaches for; the book’s gripping final chapters, however, have undeniable power. Aliki’s dry humor is entertaining as she records her life story on cassette for a modern American ethnographer.

Full of details on folk traditions, like shadow-puppet theater and ritual laments, Brown’s novel should entice readers curious about Greek history and culture and WWII enthusiasts seeking a new angle on the era.

My Last Lament is published tomorrow in hardcover and ebook by Berkley, and this review was submitted for Booklist's 3/1 issue.

Some more notes:

- It's a great concept for a novel. Even though the epic love story aspect didn't quite deliver for me, I appreciated the unique setting and all details on Greek culture. The WWII era is still immensely popular as a historical fiction setting, yet few authors have written about its effects on Greece and its people.

- This is Brown's second novel. His debut, Blood Dance (see the review from Publishers Weekly), published in 1993, focused on the women in a Greek village in the early 20th century. According to his bio, he lived and taught in Greece for a decade.

- Gorgeous cover!  It's one of my favorites for the year: simple yet effective.

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