Journeys into fiction

When a friend loans me a book, I know it’s important. It’s not unusual for books to visit my house fleetingly, but generally they’re on a journey without a clear destination. They might land up at the charity shop or with another friend, and there’s no time-frame for when that happens.

I’ve several shelves carrying that kind of load. I can only rarely tell you where any of them came from, or how long they’ve been there. In fairy tale terms, they’re passive, Sleeping Beauties, waiting to be woken.

A loaned book needs to be a different kind of heroine. She’s got a purpose.

‘You really ought to read this,’ my friend says, drawing a paperback with an understated cover from her bag. ‘I think you’d find it interesting.’

I’m intrigued by the binding. It’s expensive looking, made from thick, textured, cream-coloured card. The title jumps out at me, The Murderess. Beneath it a ribbon of stylised drawings of a woman’s face, in crimson and grey, half in cross-hatched shadow, are repeated across the cover and onto the spine.

My friend tells me no more. I thank her, and open the book, wondering if it can be short stories.

It’s a translation of a novel first published in 1903. The author is Alexandros Papadiamandis – a new name to me, but a glance at his biographical notes tells me he is ‘one of Greece’s most important writers‘. If the first hook was a recommendation from someone who’s judgement I trust, the second is this offer of getting insight into the literature of another culture.

All these years I’ve been dipping in and out of Greek myths, and I’ve not really thought about what was written after them. Starting with a modern classic seems like another good reason to get on and read this.

I skip past the introduction, no tour guide necessary, thank you. I’m looking forward to sharing this journey with the narrator. I promise to come back later, though. It’s always interesting to share notes, afterwards.

She half-sat, half-lay beside the fireplace, her eyes shut and her head propped against the hearthstone, but Aunt Hadoula, often called Yannou or Frangissa, was not asleep. She had given up sleeping to watch beside the cradle of her little sick granddaughter. The baby’s mother, who had given birth less than forty days previously, had fallen asleep a short while ago on her low sagging bed.

A good narrator is a joy to travel with, even when the tale is dark. This one knows exactly how to draw me in. The story is neatly intersected with snippets of information about how life is on Skiathos, at a time when education is only just being offered to girls, and men are emigrating to America.

A Social Tale’, says the sub-title. Even when I was involved in what was happening, but especially in the gaps when I put the book down, I thought about the whole title. The first part foreshadowed every event. While reading, I was tense, wondering who would die, how, and when. At the same time, the story brought me back, again and again, to the way the described society was organised. It was local, personal, global and absorbing.

It was about how big questions impact on a personal level. It could be read simply as the first half of the title suggests, or it could lead the reader to think. It could make you look again at that cover, that line of cross-hatched faces, and wonder why they are repeated. Other copies have opted for different images. I like the subtlety of this one, by Nikos Akrivos.

This book will complete it’s own journey and get back to its owner in good time, not because I saved it from languishing on my TBR shelf, but because it more than delivered on its promise, and I made some unexpected discoveries along the way.