Review - The Daughter

War through the eyes of a child

Published in The Independent

Monday, 30 August 2010

During the Second World War Greece was parcelled out to Germany, Italy and Bulgaria.

The Greek population suffered appalling deprivation and many died of starvation. Their resistance became one of the most effective in occupied Europe. But by late 1943 they were fighting among themselves and civil war broke out soon after liberation.

Pavlos Matesis's absorbing novel takes in the events from the perspective of a young Greek girl. Roubini lives with her mother in a small rural town she refers to as "Rampartville". You grow up fast when you live under occupation and are starving. In one incident of brutality, Roubini watches as her younger brother, "ungainly as a plucked chicken", is maimed attempting to salvage three potatoes under the nose of a German soldier: "Nobody makes a move, then the smiling German with the machine gun leaps down and smashes the boy's hand with his rifle-butt."

Childhood innocence is left behind when Roubini helps carry a consumptive girl for her first and last look at the sea: "The others were all older than me but not one of them called me the kid or the dim-wit... nobody did me any special favours, not one. So by the time we finally reached the seaside, I wasn't a kid any more."

Worn down by their unremitting hardship, Roubini's young mother Asimina decides to take Italian soldiers as lovers to alleviate her children's suffering. Her husband has disappeared, presumed dead on the Albanian front. She is labelled a whore in the close-knit community, others tolerate her, a few sympathise. None forget. When victory is declared, Asimina is publicly shamed, and the fall-out comes close to destroying mother and daughter.

Until now, Roubini's narrative has been enlivened by the various encounters and often very funny escapades that punctuate their daily lives. Following Liberation, the book shifts gear. Roubini had dreamed of becoming a famous actress who toured the provinces. She has to learn live under the shadow of this obsession. Her self-deception and the twists and turns in the plot keep us guessing until the final page.

Matesis is one of Greece's most prominent writers. Thanks to Arcadia's reissue of Fred A Reed's translation, Matesis should gain the English-language readership he deserves.

The Daughter, By Pavlos Matesis, trans. Fred A Reed