Review by Adrina Palmer
A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own—and her nation’s—epic struggle in the aftermath of World War II.
Few know how far-reaching the hand of Hilter extended. In “My Last Lament” we are introduced to fictional characters whose entire lives were scarred by the desire to eradicate the Jews even from Greece. James William Brown has masterfully crafted a world which pays respects to the losses World War II presented in Greece, while creating haunting characters with a powerful story to share. I am not big on reading about wars but understand the desire of so many to share theirs or someone else’s harrowing experiences not easily forgotten. While I would not read this book again because of the war aspect, the story is beautiful and engrossing. “My Last Lament” easily rides to the top of my internal bookshelves as one of the greatest books I have read.
Aliki is an old Greek woman living in her small childhood town awaiting the death of herself and the few people left whom she knows. She is one of the last remaining Lamenters in Greece; a practice dying from old age. As a Lamenter, her spirit connects with the dead and allows grief from those who have passed, and those left behind, to turn into songs or verbal expressions of grief. An American college student brings cassettes to Aliki along with a request to share her history of Lamenting for a research paper. Aliki fills the cassettes as she shares the story of her life which lead to her sad ability to verbalize grief in a professional manner.
Growing up in a small village, Aliki was close to her father, her only parent. As World War II trickles into Greece, Aliki’s village is taken under siege. The locals are left without food and peace as the soldiers commandeer the countryside. Forging for snails and wild onions, the locals barely survive as the soldiers shoot anyone standing in their way, Aliki’s father included. Alone and barely a teenager, Aliki moves in with a local family close to her home. Once moved in with Chrysoula, she must learn to live with Takis, Chrysoula’s young son, completely infatuated with Aliki. Before long, the two children are more like brother and sister as Aliki copes with her father’s death by not speaking. Takis and Chrysoula are the only ones who understand her while she mourns her father’s death.
Chrysoula has been doing her part to help during the war. Much to the chagrin of the other townsfolk, she has taken in a Greek Jewish mother and son into hiding in her basement. Sophia and Stelios try to be quiet and remain hidden while seeking friendship from their housemates during their time of captivity. Every day the German soldiers could find them. Takis becomes jealous as Aliki and Stelios grow closer and fall in love. Then horror strikes. As Stelios and Aliki work on making puppets for a shadow puppet play, Takis disappears in a jealous fit. When he returns so does the German Colonel. The townspeople try to protect Chrysoula and Sophia but are unable to fight the soldiers. With their parents gone, Stelios and Aliki leave for the bigger city of Athens. Despite trying to get away from Takis, because they believe him to be the cause of Chrysoula’s and Sophia’s death, Takis finds his way to Athens as well.
Takis’ behavior becomes very erratic. He soon becomes a problem in the city and gives the police Aliki and Stelios’ information. Stelios, originally from Athens, returns home in hopes his father has been returned from a concentration camp but only finds the beloved family servant, Yannoula, in the house. Together, Aliki, Stelios, and the elderly Yannoula learn to care for the mentally unstable Takis and bring in money for food by performing shadow puppet shows for the locals. Theo, a cafe owner, enlists the children to perform for his customers and offers them money. When the war makes Athens too unstable to stay, Theo moves his restaurant to an island near Crete and the children, along with Yannoula, soon follow.
Tragedy strikes again when guerrillas take Stelios hostage, and the others must trapeze across the mountains to find him. Takis’ behavior becomes even more bizarre as he seeks to keep Aliki to himself. He soon learns Aliki’s heart is linked to Stelios and manages to help rescue Stelios for the benefit of Aliki. Once back to performing for Theo, the local police accuse Stelios of working with the guerrillas against the police and arrest him before sending him to a small work island to quarry marble. Yannoula, weak and frail with age, becomes very ill and is left to care for Takis and Aliki. To stay together, Aliki and Stelios find fake papers to show they are married so Aliki can go to the island with Stelios. When Takis follows, much to Aliki’s displeasure, the entire group’s worlds fall apart, and his unstable behavior exacerbates the conflicts from the war and the island.
As an old woman, Aliki finishes telling her life saga to the cassettes as she awaits the return of her American student. The last two remaining childhood neighbors find their way to death’s door as Aliki finds her strength for her last laments as time has made her tired and unwilling to continue her work for people she does not know. On their deathbeds, her neighbors reveal secrets into Aliki’s life left hidden for decades.
How James William Brown was able to write so eloquently in a woman’s perspective is a happy mystery I enjoyed reading. His ability to hone a child’s naiveté, while masterfully fabricating a world standing on the bones of warm, is a work of brilliance. Everything you could want in a novel is here: travel, war, famine, love, crazy, secrets, betrayal, and hope. The attention to detail portrayed a colorful world in a way that made this story seem as if it was based on actual events and not the imagination of one man based on historical references. Laments is one of those books you hope never ends. When I read the last page, I felt as if I had aged, drowning in the tragedies that befell Aliki. “My Last Lament” deserves accolades and much more media attention than I have seen available for this astonishing novel.
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