Daughters of Messene, by Maggie Rainey-Smith (Mākaro Press 2015), 272 pp., $35
I recently read Philip Brady’s To Banquet With the Ethiopians: A memoir of life before the alphabet, in which the reader is challenged to accompany the poet through a labyrinth of experiences, backward and forward in time. Brady’s memoir-in-verse is populated by scholars and poets, each book opening with a quotation that introduces the chapter. As I was re-reading Maggie Rainey-Smith’s new novel for this review, I kept thinking of Belfast poet Michael Longley’s compressed idea, which opens Book XIII of Brady’s book: I am walking backward into the future like a Greek.
This seems to be a theme also explored in Maggie Rainey-Smith’s novel Daughters of Messene. As the title suggests, Daughters of Messene is about women across generations. It’s a story about young Artemis’ journey from present-day Wellington through the murk of time to faraway Peloponnese. In travelling to Greece to carry her mother Nysa’s ashes to their final resting place, young Artemis leaves behind a stalling relationship and a career that may or may not be moving forward. Even before that, as Artemis flies first from her busy life in Melbourne to Wellington, she tells the taxi driver: ‘I’m from Wellington originally. The ferry runs past our house every day.’ She catches herself speaking in present tense about a past that no longer exists:
There, she’s said it, our house, as if she were still living at home. How easily she slipped back into this … this … what was it? No sooner had she landed in Wellington, she began to inhabit her old self.
A good bit of foreshadowing for what’s to come.
In Greece, Artemis steps back in time, to a place full of myths and mysteries, to a family she doesn’t know, to aunts who envelop her in their world. And she finds something she didn’t expect: space and time to examine life, to live life. A central narrative in the book is carried by the cassette tapes left for Artemis by her mother Nysa, bringing her voice and her past – a past that has always previously been out of reach for Artemis – to life, down to the fine details:
We made our own clothes back then. I was wearing a yellow frock … The dress had a fitted bodice with darts and a zip that I had to fit twice before it sat flat. I’d just finished putting in the zip when the taxi came to take us to the dance. We would run up frocks in an afternoon back then.
Artemis carries these cassette tapes with her to Greece, listening in the quiet hours of night: we sense past and present intertwining. There are many moments in the novel when time collapses and we see two geographies and two moments at once, past and present crashing against each other. Here, for example, when her aunt Daria tries to reach her:
The missing sun reappeared boldly for a golden moment before it dropped from the sky to a spear of red on the horizon. Her phone rang. It was Daria, almost incoherent with worry. Where was she? Was she alright? Yakkity-crackle-yak … questions, questions, worry and incoherence through a strangely remote connection that was travelling all the way to New Zealand and back, global roaming with no sense of direction, and Daria sounded just like Nysa calling Artemis and her brothers in for tea …
In Rainey-Smith’s novel, the characters are not merely walking; they are dancing. The story unfolds as a slow dance working its way into the reader’s bones, the music and rhythm taking hold as we move further into it. The mystery and sensuality of dance emerges as both a curse and a moment of truth, from the stories of Artemis’ grandmother’s dancing (and the darkness surrounding it) to Artemis stepping out with the handsome Turk:
A musician arrived and Bagtash requested a tsifteteli, the Greek version of a Turkish belly dance … Artemis yielded to the sensual rhythm of the music … The dance was both erotic and symbolic, a flirtation with Bagtash, a release of emotion and a private homage to her scandalous grandmother.
There is dance elsewhere, too. When Artemis ventures to the market with her aunts, we witness the fine art of negotiating as a kind of dance:
Eleni understood the sales dance, the delicate footwork required, and just how much to pay and how far to push. While Artemis was practising walking in the crazy heels, Daria bought them for her.
Beyond dance, the novel contains subtle reminders that life, inexorably pulsing forward even as we sometimes, necessarily, glance backward, is movement, as in the waterfall – ‘a trickle, barely a trickle’ – where a momentous event took place in the past, and where Artemis goes to make peace.
Death is at the very center of Artemis’ journey, beginning with Nysa’s dark stories-on-tape that accompany her as she carries her mother’s ashes to their final resting place. Beyond that, there’s no avoiding death, from the way the aunts deal with the demise of Yiaia and Uncle George, to the way Artemis and her cousin Manolis work through his mother’s battle with cancer, to the way the theme of home intertwines with the idea of a final resting place.
Death weaves into wine, food and song, occupying the present and the future. Quite unexpectedly, Artemis finds her personal mission expanding into something much more, as she is drawn into the lives – and deaths (the chapters about tombs and burials are marvellously engaging) – of many more people from a sweeping family narrative.
When the family is preparing the meal for George’s re-burial, we see the long-feuding Petroula and Eleni argue about the preparation of the tuna:
‘It should have been bled sooner,’ shouted Eleni.
‘Ama pia,’ said Petroula. ‘I’ve had enough!’
‘What does it matter, what will Uncle George care?’ Daria said, rushing into the kitchen. ‘Who cares, the fish bled properly, po, po, the fish not bled properly? Who cares? I ask you!’
‘This fish has been waiting for its moment in history. Waiting for George. It was caught in the harbour in Stoupa this morning. How can you argue with that? All these years, no tuna in Stoupa. But today, the tuna is ready for its moment on the plate of history,’ Petroula growled. And then softly, ‘Like bread and salt: George and his fish.’
Even Eleni was silent, for how could you argue with that?
A dead fish for the living, and the dead: ready for its place in history. Oh how I love that idea!
This is a novel about complex relationships and personal histories. And the personal histories are interwoven with the greater political backdrop of Greek history, from the uncovering of the ancient city of Messene, to the battleground at Gallipoli, to the Greek Civil War in the late 1940s. The stories are about women in the main, but the men at the edges – a dead father and living brothers but especially cousin Manolis and Uncle George – occupy important roles as well. Artemis seeks answers to hidden riddles: ‘the Greeks, who love to bury their secrets, also revere and look forward to the uncovering of their deceased loved ones.’ And she slowly works her way toward resolution that may or may not come with finding them. It’s a lesson in maturation, too, seeing youthful ideas fade or die away. ‘When we are young,’ Nysa tells her daughter, ‘we hold fast to ideas as if they are treasures that we can store for our future, and we polish them with our own prejudice.’
There are memorable poetic details in Daughters of Messene, such as the mention of lykofos, or ‘wolflight’ (the ‘almost untranslatable light … the inbetween nature of day and night’) and the image of ‘[b]irds flying across a freshly ironed sky’ creating moments of tender beauty.
There is humour in the storytelling, too, from the gathering of goat dung to conversations about a cat named Horse. I laughed when Daria calls her son a ‘stupid boy’, and Eleni echoes Daria with warmth, ‘as if being a stupid boy was the loveliest thing Manolis could be’. Meanwhile, small moments of comic relief emerge when the characters pepper their talk with Greek sayings: ‘It’s time to put your two feet in one shoe and decide …’; ‘three birds sitting’.
However, there are also things that caused me to stumble. I was put off by our first encounter with Artemis, when an accidental illegal peach is confiscated by an airport customs official: the connection to a lover via the over-used T.S. Eliot poem ‘The lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ seemed at once both too easy and too far-fetched.
Even more distracting is Artemis’ occupation as a historian. The stumbling through her own layered stories is believable enough; one is reminded of the psychologist who can ascertain other’s complex issues without being able to see her own screwy self. But this is a young woman supposedly well trained in scholarly enquiry. Yet when Artemis walks through a set of heavy wooden doors in the old part of Kalamata’s Square of March 23 (named after the Day of Liberation), she looks at the restorations of the frescoes, and we read: ‘… more and more Artemis realised how unreliable any memory really was, even her own’. But surely any historian worth her salt would have come to this realisation as a matter of course, long before the moment of personal contact with old doors: the fallibility of memory is a central issue in historical debate, as is the inevitable interplay between fact and creative narrative.
Another such example comes when Artemis recalls a story of a man who drowns because he misjudged distance and tide:
It fascinated her, this ability that people had to misjudge things with such dire consequences. History, Artemis realised, was written mostly about such moments, and not about steady, reliable, ordinary decisions that most people made most days.
Surely Artemis, even early in her career, would already have had such light-bulb moments. I can see why the idea of her being a historian might suit the novel’s exploratory mood. But Artemis’ chosen professional path interferes with the unfolding of her own personal story in Greece; for me, her story would have been more compelling, and her insights more fresh, if she arrived at them not from the experience of an historian. Artemis-as-historian is distracting; whereas Artemis-as-young woman-on-a-journey-of-discovery – without educational merits and other baggage – is compelling.
But those are small quibbles. The other moments of revelation ground Artemis in the story and propel the reader forward.
When Eleni smokes a Kalamata Light with Artemis, for example, and talks of how she and Petroula came to share a man they both loved, we see the truth in the way these complex relationships worked. Yet her explanation is as simple as it can get: ‘A good life is never simple.’
This is a novel filled with good lives.
Beyond the characters and their storylines, and despite Artemis’ mismatched profession, the novel is an effective examination of memory: the heroine pacing her own forward movement against the greater backdrop of time. And this is what the historian in me admires most. In a chapter called ‘Becoming smoke’ – a wonderful saying from the Greek – Artemis and Manolis talk of their shared history. It’s another moment when past and present collide, sitting beautifully, warmly, at the centre of this story:
Artemis followed Manolis into the house to get his laptop. Out of earshot of her aunt and Eleni and Petroula, she asked him, ‘Did Daria ever talk to you about the war, and why Mama emigrated?’
‘There’ll be time to talk about this. You can’t rush these things. Have patience. When it’s right, things will work out.’ His hand parted the air as if calming it down. ‘Siga, siga – slowly, slowly – you know how it is here. You can’t hurry the truth – slowly, slowly, just go with the waters.’
As he was leaving Manolis remembered that Artemis would need his password and warned her how slow the connection would be.
Stories and memory make up the truth of the narrative – however flawed, however scarred. Even as memories are a muddle, there are moments of truth; as Nysa says in one of her recordings:
There comes a time in your life when you realise that you exist, that you are separate somehow from your family, but are still a part of them. It was this moment on the back of the truck going to the waterfall, when Uncle George fell asleep and I was alone with the blue sky and the forest around me, that I realised for the first time what it was to be alive, and to be me. So, this memory of the picnic and the waterfall is filled with both good and bad things – such a muddle, Artemi mou, my memories are such a muddle.
… There are moments in your life, Artemis, that stay perfect in their shape and colour, and this is one of them. Mama’s voice, the scent of wild thyme, the blue sky, boulders, the waterfall … and later on the soft pine needles underfoot …
The small moments – shoes in a market, a first dance, wet sand beneath bare feet, the taste of a stolen bite of baklava, a defiant goat in the middle of the road, a fish on the plate of history – connect the characters in this novel. Beyond that, the novel reminds us of a simple truth: that greater connections we seek –Yakkity-crackle-yak; trickle, trickle – will happen in time. Siga, Siga – slowly, slowly.
MICHELLE ELVY is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor. She edits at Flash Frontier: An adventure in short fiction and Blue Five Notebook, and is the founder of National Flash Fiction Day. She is assistant editor, international, of the Best Small Fictions series; other recent projects include Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton) and Voyaging with Kids (L&L Pardey). http://michelleelvy.com/