The Book Bag – review of The House on Paradise Street
Posted on 01 MAR 2012, by Sue Magee

Maud Perifanis wasn’t unduly worried when her husband didn’t return home one evening as he often stayed in his office when he was working and the news that he had been killed in a car accident, well out of Athens on the Saronic Gulf, was a shock to everyone in the house on Paradise Street where the extended family lived. Nikitas had been brought up by his aunt Alexandra and her husband and she now lived in one apartment, Orestes (his son from his second marriage) in the studio and he, Maud and their daughter Tig lived in a third apartment. There was someone missing though. Antigone was Alexandra’s sister – and Nikitas’ mother – but she’d left Greece for Russia when he was three and he hadn’t seen her since. She was over eighty when she heard the news and she came back for the funeral.

It took me quite a while to open this book. The cover suggested the sort of women’s fiction where the poor-but-honest heroine makes good despite all the obstacles she meets. The title reinforced the idea and it was a pleasant surprise to find a thought-provoking story between the covers. There’s a feud – a very deep-seated division – between the two elderly sisters and Maud decides to investigate what caused this. It wasn’t just therapy, but it did help her to come to terms with what happened. Did the feud have any bearing on Nikitas’ distress in the days immediately before his death? There was a big question needing an answer too. Who was Nikitas’ father? It’s not just Maud’s curiosity, or so she believes, as this man is also grandfather to her daughter and step-son.

It’s many years since I’ve been to Athens (I hesitate to admit that it was in the time of the Junta) but Sofka Zinovieff brings it off the page as a character in its own right. My recent ‘visits’ have been via the television screen and it’s been easy to forget that Greece’s current problems have a history going back decades. Most people know of the Spanish Civil War but how many know that the same thing happened in Greece? We think of Greece as part of the ancient world but the truth is that modern Greece has a relatively short history and there have been decades of cruel repression, state-sanctioned torture and even murder.

This might make the story seem as though it’s rather dry but it’s not. Nikitas was dead when the story began but his personality infuses the book. His early years were spent in prison with his mother and he’s worn the fact as a badge of honour ever since. Maud was his third wife and even then ‘faithful’ wasn’t one of the adjectives which would have sprung to anyone’s mind – least of all Maud’s. Maud puts me in mind of Zinovieff – English by birth but living in Greece – and there’s a real sense of not being part of either culture, of a loss of identity echoed by the sense of loss which pervades the book.