THE AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW, OCTOBER, 2011
Donata Carrazza reviews TWO GREEKS
What does a young boy make of a father who carries in his pocket a knife that is used to peel fruit, behead chickens, fashion toy flutes, and potentially serves as a weapon to kill his spouse? Two Greeks, the work of third-time novelist John Charalambous, is an engaging study of the power of family and the need for identity. In similar company to Raimond Gaita's Romulus, My Father and Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, the novel delves into difficult emotional territory, but does so with humour and humanity. Like its literary cousins, it has the foundations for an insightful filmic adaptation.
Ten-year-old Andy is the narrator of this tale, which strives to give his mother, Carol, a voice. Carol becomes the imagined reader of this shared history, which recounts one tumultuous year, 1974, when their family is disintegrating. While the book is a tribute to his mother's resilience, it is also an attempt to tell his father's sorry story. Harambalous Stylianou, also known as Harry, is the tyrannical ruler of this suburban family. Andy's recollections work not to justify his father's abhorrent behaviour, but to put them into the context of the pain that emerges from a history of poverty, isolation, migration, and lost opportunities.
Harry detaches himself from his Greek colleagues at work, derides all that comes from his own Cypriot heritage, leaves Brunswick, and settles incongruously in the bayside suburb of Hampton, 'where he was the only Greek in the street, perhaps the only foreigner'. Harry distances himself further from his origins by marrying a non-Greek, a choice with the potential to create a new cultural dynamic. But a man cannot run from who he is or the personal history that has shaped his outlook. 'Harry's anger is a brute phenomenon, unpredictable, unreasonable, untraceable in its origins, surging with forces unleashed in unseen altitudes, in other times.' Harry's moodiness sets the tone each day. In this state, Carol tries to keep the peace but also carries years of resentment; Andy is fearful, bemused, hopeful; while his fourteen-year-old sister, Angela, is combative and aggressive towards her father.
Andy's good-natured mother is full of 'wishes' that her husband might have been a different person had his life worked out otherwise. Andy recounts that Harry 'certainly picked his mark in choosing to approach you, a timid fat woman . . . you married the first man to show concerted interest'. Early in their marriage, Harry's jealousy, his control of the family finances, his roving hands and demanding sexual needs, his bullying, and general tyrannical behaviour exhaust Carol emotionally. She feels physically spent, gains more weight, and admits herself into a psychiatric hospital after the birth of each child, fearing the loss of her sanity and desperate for rest. By 1974 Carol is in a holding pattern, aware that no-fault divorce legislation is an imminent possibility and one that would not compromise the safety or health of her children.
The second Greek of the novel's title is introduced in a scene when Harry is raging at the gods, throwing lemons into the air in his backyard, insulted that his efforts to mow the lawn have been curtailed by heavy rain. 'He erupts into a sibilant tirade of wog-talk - ugly words that scour his throat, dirty filthy words, infinitely more dirty and filthy for being unintelligible.' A bodiless voice from over the fence speaks courteously and with authority in Greek leaving Harry uncharacteristically speechless. We never learn what is said, but it's enough to alter Harry's behaviour and to change the course of this family's engagement with each other for the ensuing year.
Andy engages with their new neighbour, the ill and elderly Alex Voreadis, when he is offered one dollar a day to walk Alex's dog, a recalcitrant creature more often than not carried by Andy, who feels empowered by his new earning capacity. He imagines the record player he will buy, the gifts for his family, and the bonhomie this will generate. Andy's Greek neighbour becomes an intimate companion, sharing his life story, political views, and religious beliefs. He teaches the young boy Greek, shows him trust and respect. In Alex, Andy not only finds a friend and surrogate father, but also gets closer to understanding his own heritage.
The two Greeks meet in person only once, a neighbourly interlude behind closed doors, to which no other family member is privy. We imagine that it is the Turkish invasion of Cyprus that brings them together, but there is an underlying mysteriousness to the story that keeps the reader guessing about the exchange between the two men. Charalambous creates complex, contradictory characters in constant battle with their dreams, their reality, and their profound limitations. Ten-year-old Andy's perspective is heartbreaking yet life-affirming, engendering in us a tenderness about what it is to be young and in search of role models.
Two Greeks, a welcome tale in the Australian literary landscape, penetrates the often-cliched territory that is southern European migrant culture.
THE AGE, September 16, 2006
Peter Pierce reviews SILENT PARTS
AS HIS GREAT-NIECE Julie plans a family reunion coincident with the 50th anniversary of the end of the Great War, Harry Lambert is the centre of gossip and attention. For the story of his war service is troublingly ambiguous. Did he get shot and drown in the mud at Gallipoli or perhaps Flanders, so that he was "the only one of our lot not to come back"? Did he desert? Was there a French bride? Is the funerary urn that supposedly contained his ashes only a family joke? John Charalambous' novel Silent Parts is concerned with the strange and compelling answers to these questions. Yet the puzzles are ultimately incidental to a tale of unexpected love and how it can assuage loneliness.
This book is one of the most poignant and unusual of reflections on war and remembrance. It bypasses so many well-trodden Australian fictional paths in making its own muted, moving way. This is not a tale of battle but of two home fronts, and of how French and Australians coped with rumour and loss. It does describe, plangently and complexly, the brief separate peace that Harry Lambert made with the Frenchwoman Colombe Jactatot. Charalambous interweaves the events of 1968 (as Julie marshals the scattered Lamberts for reunion), including older relatives' memories of two world wars, with Harry's travails in April 1918. Timorous, too old - in his early 40s - to have enlisted, as he did after the death of his mother, he is posted to Field Bakeries South, outside Rouen, and far from the front. On a chilly Sunday, he seeks out the nearby Cordier property from which his father's imported rose seeds came, there encountering the woman whom he takes to be the proprietor. This is the first of the narrative surprises that Charalambous elegantly engineers. Here, it is Harry's mistaken assumptions that will soon enough take him on to the right track.
None of this is to do with conventional heroism. Harry fears battle. He "attracts lonely and uncertain men" but "he can't imagine a more fraudulent father-figure". The rhetoric of war repels him and he undoes it in his thoughts: "He is not a nation. What or who he might be is a debilitating mystery." In flight from the prospect of being called to the Somme to confront the last great German push of the war, Harry finds solace and protection with Colombe. With her, he begins to make, in exceptional and perilous conditions, the ordinary life that he could never manage in Australia.
Colombe also has a vexed history - of marital tyranny and the loss of a son. She is trenchant about the war: "This is a catastrophe and we got to it in our sleep." Between them develops a love that neither anticipated nor imagined, one that is enabled by the war but bound to be riven by it as well.
Charalambous is never sentimental nor impatient in his unfolding of the story. It will have none of the decisive or dismissive endings that Harry's Australian relations conceive for him and his unknown "French wife". Indeed, its primary business will be to do with waiting, as Colombe and Harry live apart until their own reunion. What Harry wants for them, in Normandy, where he has settled after the war, is "contented insignificance". He has seemingly forever uprooted himself from an Australia where he suspects that "the whole country (is) tyrannised by patriotic committees". The last scene of Silent Parts transports us from the fervid world back home at which Harry guesses, to end in beatitude, though not in a sure promise of happiness.
Charalambous has triumphantly cleared the hurdle of the second novel in this, one of the books of the year.
Peter Pierce is professor of Australian literature at James Cook University.
BRISBANE COURIER MAIL, September, 2004
Di Dempsey reviews FURIES
Nicky Daniels is taking her fifteen year old daughter Imogen for a driving lesson on the outskirts of their country town when she idly observes the sparse spring growth. "Very dry, she comments, as if either of them could give a fuck about the farmers." It is indeed true that most people don't give a fuck about farmers, although given the farmers' constant whingeing, who would ever dare admit it? - A writer, that's who, a bloody good writer.
This may be John Charalambous' first novel but by the time you get to the bottom of the first page you know you are in for a rare treat - witty, honest and intelligent writing that's actually about something - in this case the vicissitudes of family life.
The Greek Furies were the implacable police of family duty, and its fascinating to see this unfashionable concept worked through in a modern Australian setting, where families can be anything and nothing. The unhappy daughter of strict Greek parents, Nicky Daniels ran away from home when she was a young girl and underwent a series of reinventions. By living with an adoptive family she was able to stay at school, go to university, fall in love with an artist and end up in Rushburn - as a hippy. With the spasmodic assistance of several hangers on, she and her husband built a four room, mud brick house and called it a commune, in this case the optimistically named "Deep Spring Community". The promise of an old spring, originally tapped by Chinese market gardeners, never was fulfilled.
Of the members of the commune Nicky was the only one who struck a blow. Her teaching income kept them in books, paints, music, food and alcohol. They did however manage to grow their own dope. One by one they left, including Nicky's husband. Nicky was left literally holding the baby, but not her own. Imogen, the child she loves, is the daughter of an absent father and a mother who committed suicide. After the commune collapsed Nicky attached herself to the family of the town and that was when she became a respected art teacher.
With a population of 900, Rushburn no longer has an Apex or a Young Farmers and the bush is crawling with sun-addled, crazy men who wave metal detectors about and sometimes guns. Charalambous describes the life of the dying town in devastating detail. Many of the teachers live in Bendigo and make a daily round trip of 200 kilometres rather than live in Rushburn. The locals, naturally enough, resent their lack of commitment. Some of the older teachers have stayed on; but the rewards of contributing to a small community are rapidly diminishing. Nicky's closest friend Kate is a fellow teacher and she's the real McCoy - a local. A local who is supporting her husband and propping up the family farm.
Still living in the crumbling mud brick house, Nicky works hard at school. She's the backbone of the tennis club; paints in her spare time and when convenient, late at night, she fucks Pug Illingworth, the town's mechanic. But above all Nicky looks after Imogen who is so immersed in the town's culture that she wants to make her debut. Deb frocks aside, Imogen has few expectations of life other than grubby sex with the gang down by the local reservoir. Nicky knows that she must now take Imogen away and move to Melbourne. Nicky would also like Imogen to know one thing - that she wasn't always this woman, that "when she was young she loved without reservation and expected to be loved in return. It's her cherished conception of how a young woman should be- brave, idealistic, unwilling to compromise."
Nicky's quest is to save Imogen before the Furies strike them down. When they find out Nicky is leaving, the members of the tennis club; her school colleagues; her best friend, resent yet another defection. But that is the way of country towns, people come and you love them and then they leave you.
John Charalambous has written an extraordinarily beautiful portrait of a woman and by the book's end you wish her well; you wish her fresh springs of life.
Di Dempsey is an experienced freelance reviewer whose work has appeared in Australian newspapers for more than a decade.