Sofka Zinovieff’s absorbing first novel has two narrative voices. Maud is the English widow of Nikitas, whose death in a mysterious accident leads her to contact Antigone, the mother-in-law she has never met. A former Communist freedom fighter, Antigone was forced to leave Greece for the Soviet Union following the Greek civil war. She gave birth to Nikitas, her only child, in prison, and handed him over to her family when he was three years old, severing all further contact.
Maud was the third wife of the dominant, swaggering Nikitas. She remained passive throughout their marriage; now, liberated by his death, she starts asking the questions to which she ought always to have known the answers — answers which can be supplied only by Antigone.
Antigone and Maud have much in common. Both are widows. Both had only one child — Maud’s is a daughter, Tig, named, perhaps surprisingly, after her absconding grandmother. Both chose to believe themselves content in their country of adoption, but loneliness has taken its toll. When Antigone’s last Russian friend leaves for England, she is left mouldering in Moscow with only a hostile cat for company.
Maud’s social life in Athens was largely orchestrated by the gregarious Nikitas; people like her, but no one seems very interested in her — they can’t even pronounce her name. Tig has turned from responsive child into rebellious teenager. Maud’s English family are dead or indifferent. When Antigone decides to end her exile and return to Athens after a 60-year absence, will she be able or willing to help Maud achieve closure?
The story of the original Antigone (inaccurately called a myth) is referred to; this ought to be a human story bursting with Sophoclean power. Somehow, it falls a little flat. Too often, Zinovieff’s characters are made mouthpieces for political opinions, or used simply to provide the reader with necessary information to further the plot. None of them quite makes it into three dimensions, and at the end the story is tied up too neatly and predictably.
Despite its flaws, which are those common to first novels, The House on Paradise Street deserves to be read for its subject- matter. We are woefully ignorant in this country of Greece’s 20th-century history, and this book fills the gaps in an engaging way. Given the current crisis, this is information we all need. Antigone’s girlhood as a partisan hiding in the mountains is powerfully evoked; the forces that tore the country apart are echoed in the microcosm of the destruction of her family.
But what gives the book true readability is the sense of place. Zinovieff’s portrayal of Greece is beautiful and believable, engaging all the senses. I did not care much about the fates of the characters, but I found myself caring passionately about the fate of the motherland.