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Review: The Lucky Child, by Marianne Apostolides

Marianne Apostolides

Annually, on Oct. 28, Greeks everywhere celebrate Oheemera! ("No! Day") - marking the time, in 1940, when the government denied Benito Mussolini the right to use Greece as an Axis access route. People throughout Greece echoed this "No!" and subsequently routed the Italian fascists.

They were less successful against Nazi occupation, particularly in northern Greece, home to most of the long-thriving Jewish population. Greek Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, while the king and pro-royalist government fled to Egypt. The resistance went underground, in cities and villages. Maintaining stealth opposition to the Germans, Greeks formed uneasy left/centre/right alliances, dedicated to a free Greece. In the power vacuum created by a government-in-exile, solidarity fractured and a bloody Greek-against-Greek civil war ensued. It lasted from 1944 to 1949, with ever-increasing violence.

This is the world of Marianne Apostolides's multi-layered memoir cum novel, The Lucky Child.

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We meet the Apostolides family and their friends, in both Thessalonica and the mountain villages of the Zagora, in the calm before the fist of Hitler closes around their traditional lives.

The book's central character, veterinarian and grass-roots military strategist Agamemnon Apostolides, cares for the humans and animals around him with unsentimental, scientifically focused wisdom. In a civil war that produces angry enmity lasting to this day, Agamemnon is one of few who resists the foreign and internecine destruction around him.

There are many important multi-generational characters in The Lucky Child. These are introduced to us in a thumbnail sketch rush, which, initially, makes it difficult to attach to them. This, I think, causes a measure of reader restlessness - which is unfair to what becomes a vibrant, multi-layered and image-rich book. Had the short novel taken eight-to-10 more pages to bring the people and their world to us, the word-salad of names would belong sooner to living humans.

Fortunately, once the tweet-like character introductions abate, we meet a lovingly and creatively wrought universe. Those who know and love Greece get to visit new friends in a familiar world. Those who do not know Greece and Greek life - both quotidian and in the heightened intensity of war and political dissonance - will meet real people, in their place and time.

(And food! I confess to stopping to yearn for koulouria (sesame-dappled breakfast "bagels") and milk cake ( galaktoboureko).) As war dramatically reduces the family's food supply, they are forced to replace beloved coffee with a concoction made of roasted, pulverized chickpeas and cinnamon.

Greek love of art also comes alive on the page. Mary, Agamemnon's stubborn, easily irritated, yet loving wife, complains that Greek-American cousins think of "theatre" as a building, while native Greeks see it as a special event.

Devotion to the national literature runs through young people's classes taught by Mr. Gondicas. Through schoolmaster Gondicas, Apostolides interweaves Homer's Odyssey with the encroaching Nazis and accelerating civil war. When lack of funds forces him to fire staff, he continues to teach students from 7-17 in a single room.

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As Hitler's soldiers draw closer, visiting American cousins panic, cousin Elpiniki screaming "My child is here! … Get me off this mountain!" This sequence illuminates the difference, seen in many current events, between those who have always known war on their soil and those who have not.

In an afterward, Marianne Apostolides notes that the character of American cousin Philip is the one with whom she, as author, fell in love. Me too. Philip, with the surety and energy of a handsome young American, easily charms the young girls around him. He will be suddenly disfigured and broken. Without revealing what a reader should discover, I will say that this section is exquisitely written and shall last in my mind.

Mansfield Press is one of Canada's finest poetry publishers, featuring Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Christopher Doda and a cornucopia of other first-rate writers of verse. It is good that they are branching out into prose fiction. And very good indeed that this expansion includes a living, loving Lucky Child.

In 1996, in the Zagora town of Monodendri, contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett assisted with a documentary about surviving fighters from the Greek Civil War. The men, in their eighties, once friends and relatives, had been on opposite sides, and refused to be interviewed in the same room.

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