Author: James William Brown
Publisher: Berkley: imprint of Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9780399583407

Greece - a country devastated by war and occupation; more than 400,000 casualties during the occupation; the country's Jewish community almost completely decimated in the Holocaust; and its economy and infrastructure in ruins because of WW11 and the savage civil war which followed - set the scene for this unusual novel.

It’s a story told by Aliki, a Greek teenager who narrates her life on cassette tapes through laments, an ancient profession wherein the lamenter ritualizes grief and sorrow at funerals by wailing long dirges for the deceased.   The author’s use of the lament is a fascinating and most effective technique to record Greek reality in the 1940’s and 1950’s when Greek citizens experienced so much sorrow and grief.

Aliki’s story begins when she witnesses her father’s execution by a Nazi firing squad and her life dramatically changes.  Now orphaned, a kindly neighbour takes her into her home.   Living with Chrysoula and her eleven year old son Takis, they are soon joined by Sophia and Stelios, Jewish refugee mother and teenaged son who are hidden in the basement to avoid capture by the Nazis and deportation to Auschwitz.

Friendship develops between Stelios and Aliki as he teaches her to read and introduces her to traditional Greek puppet theatre.  When their village is destroyed by Nazis and its people killed, including Chrysoula and Sophia, the three young people become a makeshift-family, bound by grief, confusion and friendship and make their way to Crete where life continues its downward spiral.   As the story continues, Aliki and Stelios become young adults and Takis becomes a teenager. Filled with love for Aliki, Takis’ mind seems to become more unbalanced each day, likely exacerbated by witnessing so many tragic deaths and by accusations that he betrayed his village in bringing Germans to Aliki’s home give rise to Aliki’s laments becoming personal. The feelings she has for Takis seem to only revolve around a ‘sense of responsibility’ for the young boy while burgeoning feelings of love begin within her for Stelios.

When the three now-orphaned children find themselves on their own, barely surviving, gifted shadow puppeteer Stelios teaches Aliki and Takis the art of shadow puppetry so they can all earn money by performing their puppet shows in tavernas and town squares.

Imprisonment, death, betrayal, murder follow the trio and the twist at the end brings the book’s title into a surprising focus by author James William Brown whose skill (as a wordsmith, weaver of plot, and developer of characters) is second only in his ability to offer remarkable insight into a country seldom approached in the context of WW11.