The House on Paradise Street was published in March by Short Books. I’ve never heard of the press but they look to be a small press based in London. It’s meant as no disrespect to Short Press to say that The House on Paradise Street could credibly have been published by Knopf. But it wasn’t, so you may have a problem finding this debut novel in every indie bookstore.
That’s a shame. I’m trying to puzzle out what makes SZ such an accomplished novelist on her first attempt. Maybe it helps that she’s been a student of anthropology and that she has published two critically esteemed nonfiction works.
The ancillary material appended to the back of this novel is at least half as interesting as the story. There’s a brief history of Greece in the 20th century. It’s extraordinary to attach an essay on the history of a country to a novel. I found that I knew more about what was happening in Athens in 500 BC than I knew what was happening in the same place in 1944.
I almost always skip the acknowledgements section of a book except in that very rare case in which I am in it. But this novel’s acknowledgements section is worth a perusal. Most of the events and characters in the novel are based on true occurrences. That’s a good definition of a realist novel…right? Sofka discuss the people who impacted her novel with their life histories. But she also demonstrates how the writer transmutes that material. Fragments of real lives break up before your eyes and become parts of fictional lives. Names, events and people undergo morphosis, yet their essence, their pith or melos, is somehow transposed into Sofka Zinovief’s story.
There’s an effective dual first person narrative strategy. Chapters are named after either Maud or Antigone. Whoever the chapter is named after is the narrator for that part of the story. The connecting link between the women is Nikitas, in his early sixties, husband to Maud and Antigone’s son. Antigone is in her eighties when the story opens.
It’s as if SZ held a Maud doll and an Antigone doll, each in one hand, as far apart from each other as possible. As the story unfolds, the two figures are slowly brought closer together until, at the end, their life histories cohere.
Since Nikitas dies in the first sentence of the novel, that disclosure can hardly be considered a spoiler. Not to worry, we meet him alive in flashbacks. His death in a traffic accident (DUI) is the spur that gets the story going.
Antigone gave birth to Nikitas in prison where she was being held as a political prisoner. She gives him up to her older sister Alexandra’s family to raise and leaves the country for 60 years, making a life for herself as a radio broadcaster in Moscow.
No one escapes politics in The House on Paradise Street. Antigone was a communist insurgent during WW2, fighting in the mountains to rid Greece of the Nazis. Her sister Alexandra swung to the opposite pole and is traditionally religious and conservative. Her husband, Spiros, was a Nazi sympathizer, something that Alexandra doesn’t want to admit to herself or to anyone else.
I loved the burnt letter. Antigone leaves Athens, abandoning her infant son. She is also blamed for the death of their younger brother, Markos, who died in a Fascist raid on a safe house where leftist guerrillas were holed up. Alexandra had already told her younger sister, Antigone, that she shouldn’t return to the family home on Paradise Street at all unless she brings back Markos, their teenage brother, safely.
Alexandra is the recipient of the burnt letter. When she opens the envelope she sees the edges of the missive are burnt black. The letter falls into fragments as she reads it. Its black soot stains her dress. Antigone has disowned her family in the letter. She will never return. To her family, receiving such a letter has the force of black magic, a satanic anathema has been pronounced upon them.
Nikitas death means that Antigone will never see her son alive again except as the infant she once knew and abandoned.
But Maud is left wondering what kind of a marriage she had to that son. Nikitas has died drunk in an accident on a remote country road. It’s a mark of the growing estrangement in her marriage that Maud doesn’t know why her husband was there. It’s makes Maud realize something that she hasn’t conceptualized before. That for years, she and her husband had been growing farther apart.
Nikitas is a charismatic figure, a noted journalist beloved by the literary community of Athens. Maud is also Nikitas’ third wife. I was wonderfully chilled by the weirdness when the funeral for Nikitas is attended by all three wives, each remarkable in her own way. Nikitas, that total charmer, would never have married anyone boring. But you do get the impression that he was a serial husband.
N never neglected Maud. But he kept a life apart from his wife that she was never invited to share. Maud slowly realizes this when she opens her late husband’s office to go through his papers. She finds a lipstick case that she later realizes belongs an associate, Danae. It doesn’t help that Danae is reluctant to meet with Maud at all and says she had promised Nikitas never to discuss his research with anyone, including her.
So Maud has the experience of being excluded from her husband’s life by Danae who seems closer to much of that life than she was. Maud, stonewalled by Danae, struggles to make sense of the mysterious research that occupied Nikitas at the end of his life.
The house on Paradise Street has belonged to the family for generations. Nikitas grew up there, raised by Alexandra and an antagonistic Spiros. Now the widowed Alexandra lives downstairs with her housekeeper/companion, the somewhat weird Chryssa, a native of their old village in central Greece, Perivoli. Maud lives on the second floor with her daughter Tig, short for Antigone. She had named her daughter after Nikitas’ mother.
The grey slate floors have fossils embedded in the stone. The window shutters are red. There is a spiral staircase at the back of the house that leads to the garden where a old lemon tree practically abuts the stairs. The lemon tree was planted by the paternal founder of the house. It’s great to have her aunt Alexandra so close. Maud sends Tig downstairs for hours when she needs to go out. You get to know this house, and the aromatic smells from Alexandra’s kitchen, very well.
Greece: On the way to her husband’s funeral, Maud and her family cross the threshold of the house on Paradise Street. When they do so, Maud is handed a large jug and told to smash it on the steps. The explanation? “It’s the custom.”
There’s lots of great Greek food in this story. I could practically taste it. Vivid colors, vivid smells, intense light, characters doing impulsive drama framed by time-chastened folkloric traditions. That’s how Greece is presented to us in this story. I also had the impression of a country that’s been battered near to death by history since Alexander died. And of characters whose lives seem to embody that tragic past.
If you’re fortunate enough to lay hands on a copy of The House on Paradise Street, you won’t forget the people you have met in it. And you won’t forget what happens when Antigone returns to Greece, after an absence of 60 years, to attend the funeral of the son she has only known as an infant. The characters struggle to uncover the truth of their family’s history. And they struggle not to uncover it. What readers want to know about a book is up to them. But when the characters sometimes don’t want to tell them; that’s one ideal of a great read.