For Books’ Sake – review of The House on Paradise Street
Posted on 04 MAR 2012, by Lettie Ransley

The House on Paradise Street is the début novel by Sofka Zinovieff. Of Russian descent, she grew up in London and moved to Greece in 2001. She is the author of two non-fiction books, Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, and Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life.

The House on Paradise Street is set inAthens, where an English-born researcher,Maud Perifanis, lives with her journalist husband, Nikitas, their teenage daughter Tigand stepson, Orestes, in an apartment above the childhood home of Nikitas’s aunt,Alexandra.

When Nikitas died in a car crash in 2008, Maud contacted his mother, Antigone, who left him behind as a child for life in Soviet Russia.

Her return to Athens, and the yielding of long-held secrets, forms the other half of a dual narrative.

The story veers between Antigone’s past, dating back to the German occupation of Greece during World War II, when she and Alexandra were teenagers.

While Antigone and her brother, Markos, joined the resistance, Alexandra’s involvement with a policeman, Spiros, pre-empted her sister’s rift from the family.

During wartime, Greek rebels were supported by the Allies. However, after 1945, the English switched loyalties to the right-wing factions that had previously collaborated with the Nazis. A bitter civil war ensued, leaving ‘patriots’ like Antigone marginalised.

But the conflicts aren’t all in the past, as the next generation becomes embroiled in protests that have dominated headlines since Greece fell into ‘permanent recession’ five years ago. With the Debt Crisis still very much in the news, The House on Paradise Street has an edge over most historical fiction.

‘We Greeks are all movement,’ Antigone says of her people’s intrepid spirit. As Maud grieves for Nikitas, she notes that ‘there’s not even a word for privacy in Greek.’ Her husband’s philosophy could best be summarised as ‘The more people you know, the richer your life will be.’

This creed shaped their happiest times: ‘”spontaneous” is a defining word in Greek,’ Maud observed, ‘and Nikitas was loyal to the principle.’ She also speaks of ‘opposites existing together,’ though not always harmoniously.

Recalling their turbulent past, a family friend comments, ‘In a civil war, everybody loses. And Greeks know better than anyone how to put out their own eyes.’

Maud’s sense of identity comes from an incomer’s perspective. While her early years of marriage were a ‘Hellenic idyll,’ her distrust of politics contrasted sharply with her husband’s passionate engagement. ‘I suppose my outsider’s innocence ceased to be refreshing to Nikitas,’ she admits.

When the story’s female narrators first meet, Antigone detects a ‘terrier-like tendency’ beneath Maud’s English reserve, as she tries to solve the mystery of her husband’s childhood abandonment – and also, perhaps, his demise.

‘I believed that the English were philhellenes,’ says Antigone, evoking their romantic attachment to Greece which nonetheless ended in betrayal. But Maud is determined not to be ‘stereotyped with my nation’s characteristics’.

‘Beware of grand schemes,’ warns Aunt Alexandra, whose stolid conservatism Maud finds somehow reassuring. Antigone retains her youthful radicalism (‘We’ll all go back to Marx’), though her own journey is nearing its end. ‘Ideals and dreams are all very well for the young,’ she muses, ‘but at the end we yearn for the soil and roots from which we came.’

The elder generation were shaped by their experience of war. ‘The order we take for granted can vanish like theatrical scenery,’ Antigone notes, while Maud’s English grandparents ‘had valued peace for its own sake.’

As she attempts to mediate between the estranged sisters, Maud learns that ‘dehumanising the other side had always been the first rule of war.’ For the next generation, staying neutral may not be an option. ‘Did she think life is fair?’ Tig asks, incredulously.

‘You can throw a black stone behind you,’ a friend tells Antigone, ‘but sometimes it calls you back rather than keeping you away.’ Nikitas describes himself as ‘the fly in the milk.’ The House on Paradise Street is full of unsettling images like these, culled from everyday speech and classical myth.

Many Athenian homes were built on ancient burial sites, and the Acropolis remains visible from every angle. Maud both embraces and resists the role of Greek widow, while Antigone follows her legendary namesake in trying to protect her fallen brother.

In this spellbinding novel, Sofka Zinovieff reveals herself as a modern-day Cassandra, suggesting that the past is both a foreign country and a psychic homeland to which we must all finally return.