I received a paperback ARC copy of this review and that has in no way affected the content of my feedback.
This novel (because yes, although it is composed of what appear to be separate vignettes all taking place in the same period of time and in the same location, it does amount to more than its parts, as the description correctly points out) chronicles a Greek town, Orestiada, and its inhabitants’ adventures at a point of crisis. It has been raining for weeks, the river is growing, and things are coming to a head, and I am not only talking about the weather and the flood.
The author cleverly weaves all the seemingly separate strands, first setting up the multiple characters and their circumstances (we do have a varied catalogue of mostly adult and middle-aged characters, many locals, but also a British man who has lived most of his life abroad [as an unofficial spy now turned writer], a Syrian illegal immigrant, a busload of Russian women, another busload of Israeli women, and people from all walks of small-town Greek life, from farmers to mayors, from factory directors to artists), and then wrenching up the tension, as if the weather was having an effect on the whole population, and things that had been bubbling up under the surface were now ready to explode. And although in some cases the actual resolution is not as spectacular as we might have expected (after all, we have attempted murders, personal threats, cars plunging into a river, racial slurs, a group of Russian women coming to meet the single men of the town in a collective dating experiment, old flames meeting again…) there is a silver lining after the storm and readers leave the town with a warm and hopeful feeling.
What did I like? The story made me think of the best soap operas centred in a community, where over a period of time we get to know the characters and we care for them. It shows the writer’s great skill that despite the episodic nature of the story, we feel quite close to the characters (some more than others, but still, they are all distinctive and feel real in their everyday preoccupations and lives) and care what happens to them. Iris, in some ways the central character, as she is the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology, is the messenger of the town, and no matter what her personal circumstances are she keeps delivering parcels, messages, and bringing her upbeat outlook and optimism to all she meet. She is a favourite of mine, and I was happy things worked out so well for her. But I became fond of most of the characters, even the less likeable ones, as we are offered enough information about them to understand them, and the good-will of the town and its people is contagious. The story is narrated in the third person but each chapter is told from the perspective of the main character it talks about, and that means we get to see them not only as others see them but as they truly are.
The novel creates a good sense of what the place and the homes of the characters are like, without going into long descriptions. Those that are included capture more the mood rather than the detail, and are, like the rest of the book, pretty humorous (with a touch of irony but fairly affectionate). Here Maria, the local artist, who has to produce work that she does not like but is to the taste of the local market, is reflecting upon what the houses of the citizens who came to the exhibitions of her work every year would look like:
Afterwards, these stalwarts would return to their homes —inevitably filled with expensive vulgar baubles, nick-nacks, coloured glass from Venice, and a blue-faced woman enigmatically smiling from the sitting room wall like some demented oriental Mona Lisa.
Together with a collection of pissing dog prints, their overcrowded living rooms were neve complete without a large china bust of Socrates. A translated set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica —carefully secreted an unopened on a half-hidden bookshelf— and their illusion of sophistication was complete.
The humour can be dark at times, especially when it comes to a couple who want to get rid of each other and will not stop at anything to make sure they achieve their goal. Here one of their business associates is thinking about one of his men:
The assassin liked Dragomire because he didn’t mind shooting people when he carried out a bank robbery, which in his view was very professional and to be admired.
I guess we all have our standards and rules of conduct. (By the way, I’d advise law-abiding Bulgarians to keep away from this book, as it does not paint a great image of its people, but the overgeneralisations seem in keeping with the view neighbouring countries might have of each other, not always flattering).
Was there anything I didn’t like? As I said, I enjoyed the atmosphere, the character,s and their stories. I received a copy of the book, in paperback, a long while ago but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Therefore, it might be that the book has undergone revisions and transformations since, so my objections might well be unjustified now. The paperback had some formatting issues (no page numbers, some empty pages and strange distribution of text), there was the odd typo here and there (nothing too jarring even for an early copy), and then there were some peculiarities in the way the story was told. As a non-native English speaker, I am always wary of commenting on style. In this case, I wondered if some of the grammatical structures that sounded slightly odd to me might be an attempt at adopting the rhythm of conversations and speech in Greece, and I soon became accustomed to it and got to like it, but I’d advise readers to read a sample of the book first, to check for themselves.
A feel-good book about a rather wonderful place, one of these towns that, although far from ideal, end up earning a place in our hearts.