Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Confronting family shame has consequences
AIDOS, the Greek goddess of shame, must have been looking over Canadian Stella Harvey's shoulder during the six years she spent crafting her first novel.
In Nicolai's Daughters, published by the Winnipeg literary house Signature Editions, she deftly explores the consequences of confronting a family's prejudices and hidden shame, bringing long-held secrets and private shames into the open.
It is the sort of story that could rapidly descend into soap opera, but it does not. Harvey keeps her characters firmly and credibly under control.
Although she lives in Whistler, B.C., Harvey travels frequently to Greece to visit relatives. This familiarity with the country and its people lends a feeling of authenticity to the rich, emotional family dialogues that drive the story.
There are many shades and sources of shame, from getting caught in a tryst on the beach to wearing high-heeled shoes to market. Harvey casts shame both as a moral compass and as a tool for bullies; the possibility of incurring shame is a powerful motive for keeping secrets, and the Sarinopolous family has many secrets.
This is the culture into which Alexia, a 32-year-old Vancouver lawyer, is plunged when she travels to Diakofto, her father Nicolai's former village, to find the half-sister he had hidden from her until moments before his death, and to meet her relatives in the Sarinopolous family.
Twenty-five years earlier, Nicolai, seeking solace following the death of his wife, had left Alexia with her godparents in Vancouver and returned to Diakofto.
But there was no solace. "How are we supposed to explain your return to our friends and neighbours?" his father demands.
Nicolai's father refused to acknowledge Alexia because she is "not of Greek blood" and his son did not marry in a church. As far as Nicolai's father is concerned, "The child is illegitimate." These are matters of deep shame to the old man.
"He can't change," Nicolai's mother tells him.
The family blames the experiences of the Second World War for the old man's bitterness. He was one of the survivors of the Nazi massacre of Kalavryta, which saw 700 civilians killed and 28 communities destroyed.
The choices he made in order to survive the massacre left the old man burdened with a deep shame he could not talk about. This repressed shame turned to guilt and rage which he often directed at his family.
Harvey tells the story through the alternating experiences of Nicolai and Alexia, his story from the perspective of his 1986 visit to the family, Alexia's from her 2010 visit.
Finding little family help for his depression, Nicolai has an affair that resulted in the mystery daughter Theodora. He knew nothing of her existence when he returned to Canada, and found out only through a letter from a business partner.
Over the years, he writes many letters to Theodora, but does not mail them, saving them instead in a box. It is these letters that Alexia is required to take with her to Greece.
At first, the family in Greece does not tell Alexia about her sister's existence, and Alexia does not tell them the search for Theodora is her real reason for being there.
Patiently, like an archeologist on a dig, Alexia dusts aside the family's shards of shame and layers of secrecy to discover the truth about Kalavryta, lay bare the family's secrets, and finally bring Theodora and her husband publicly into the family.
Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.
By Stella Leventoyannis Harvey
Signature Editions, 316 pages, $23
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J8
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