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The National: “a mesmerising read; a psychologically rich and haunting study of things 'lost in silence.'"

Date: Jan 15 2015

Greek tragedies: The Secret Sister is a novel about the impossibility of escaping the past

Lucy Scholes
January 15, 2015

The Secret Sister is the Greek ¬author Fotini Tsalikoglou’s first novel to be translated into English. At just more than 100 pages, it’s really more of a novella, but considering its brevity, its scope is really quite amazing.

“Eight hours and thirty-five minutes,” the novel begins: the duration of a flight from New York to Athens. The year is 2013 and Jonathan Argyriou, a Manhattan-born Greek-American in his early 30s, is bound for the Greek capital, in what will be his first visit to his family’s homeland. As the plane prepares for take-off, he fancies his absent sister Amalia is strapped into the seat next to him, beginning an imaginary conversation with her that will last the length of the flight and reveal the full story of his family’s troubled past.

In 1922, two sisters, 7-year-old Erasmia and 5-year-old Frosso, flee the Turkish soldiers attacking Smyrna: “In one minute we had to leave, we had to abandon our identity, in one minute what we were had ceased to exist.” They lose their mother in the chaos, but the girls make it to Athens, where they build a home for themselves in New Ionia, a slum suburb settled by refugees.

Eighteen years later, and Europe now ablaze with the Second World War, the newly-wed Frosso sets sail for America with her husband Menelaos, leaving Erasmia behind. But, beset by depression during the crossing, the young bride flings herself over the side of the ship into a watery grave. Just two months after they left, Menelaos returns to Athens a widower, immediately marrying Erasmia in her sister’s place.

The couple safely cross the Atlantic and settle in New York, and after 12 years in this new city, a daughter is born: a baby girl they name Frosso after the beloved they lost. But this kind of repetition is dangerous. The second Frosso grows up haunted by the first; unable to escape a doomed past that’s hers by default. She attempts to break with tradition – takes an American name of her own, calling herself Lale Andersen; names her children without a hint of their Greek origins; children whose father, possibly fathers, she never acknowledges, let alone marries – but ultimately it’s all in vain. A deep, dark misery pervades her life, poisoning everything it touches, and tragedy, once again, lies in store for the Argyrious.

“The story will never stop repeating itself,” his ageing grandmother Erasmia tells Jonathan. “That’s how people are made; it’s human nature not to be able to prevent repetition. That’s what ‘human being’ means: that which cannot prevent repetition.”

I was reminded here of the English philosopher Iris Murdoch’s wonderful novel The Word Child, which tells the story of a man trapped in a nightmare of his own making, haunted by a ghostly repetition of the tragic events that begat his hopeless situation in the first place. Just as Murdoch’s philosophical learning informed her work, so too Tsalikoglou’s work as a psychologist clearly saturates hers. “[A] person is never a single one, but lots of people together,” explains Jonathan knowingly, “and the things people have inside them are many and muddled up, and it’s this ‘lots of people together’ that makes us want one another.”

Another novelist worth mentioning is of course Jeffrey Eugenides: both his 2002 novel Middlesex and The Secret Sister hinge on a bond forged between siblings on the burning quay at Smyrna.

Tsalikoglou is really quite brilliant on the psychology of family secrets. “Each family is fed by its secrets,” her distressed narrator declares. “Like a strangely bulimic climbing vine, the unrevealed secrets embrace the family’s flesh a little tighter each day, until in the end they become one with it. You can’t tell the vine from the flesh. A couple joined for all time, and if you try to pry it apart, you destroy it.” The elegance of her simile no doubt also owes much to Mary Kitroeff’s seamless translation.

The Secret Sister is a mesmerising read; a psychologically rich and haunting study of things “lost in silence” within one family, the individual trials they suffer mirrored and magnified in the larger conflict and hardship suffered by their homeland over the course of the 20th century.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.

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