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The Secret Sister by Fotini Tsalikoglou, book review: Journey into a nightmare

A powerful taste of the writing that has been fired into existence in Greece

Suzanne Joinson
Saturday 17 January 2015 13:00 GMT

Just as numerous American writers rushed to tackle 9/11 in fiction, contemporary Greek writing is currently awash with interpretations of “the crisis” and attempts to contextualise and understand the unravelling of a country with a complex past and an increasingly heart-broken present.

The Secret Sister is the story of third-generation Greek American Jonathan as he takes his first trip to the motherland. It is a slim novel, but hallucinatory and intense. Reading it feels like stepping into another person’s dream, and indeed in a recent lecture given in Athens Tsalikoglou told a packed room: “Greeks feel like they are in a bad dream”. It is a story of painful memories, both collective and personal, that will no longer be kept quiet.

The original Greek title is Eight Hours and Thirty-Five Minutes, referring to the flight-time from New York to Athens. Jonathan’s journey “home” opens up a series of associations which force him to confront his own narrative, which is inevitably entwined with that of his disjointed, scattered family. It is the trajectory of the displaced, of the immigrant, a familiar tale of influx and exodus that has long woven its way through Greek cultural history. Jonathan and his mother were born in New York and his grandmother came from Smyrna, where she and her little sister were orphaned during the 1922 Graeco-Turkish war, washing up in the immigrant slums of Athens. One sister died, the other made her way to America.

The use of an external physical journey reflecting an inner journey befits an author who is a well-respected professor of psychology. At times the language – in translation at least – is a touch heavy-handed, but as Jonathan falls into the rabbit-hole of his family’s past, we are given a fascinating insight into the present-day Greek psyche through an individual: contested borders, dislocation, and an unreliable, dissolved sense of self.

This is Tsalikoglou’s first book to be translated into English, although she is much-celebrated in Greece. The Secret Sister, brought to us by Europa Editions, is about the legacy of trauma. It gives us a powerful taste of the writing that has been fired into existence in Greece by the dramatic changes of late, and it leaves me, for one, wanting to read much more.

Suzanne Joinson’s novel ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ is published by Bloomsbury

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