Our history lives in us, resides in our bodies, not just our singular unique experiences but in the collective experiences of our parents, our grandparents, our cultural backdrop. These are our stories and at some point in our lives our history will demand attention. Our histories will not be ignored.
Stella Leventoyannis Harvey's debut novel Nicolai's Daughters (Signature Editions) shows us how our past, the joys, connections, the secrets and experiences shape us and make us who we are. The author takes us on a journey, through time and place, gently unwrapping the secrets and tragedies of the Sarinopoulos family, skating seamlessly from 1983 to the 1943 massacre at Kalavryta, Greece, forward to 2010 and back again.
Nicolai leaves Greece, its lack of opportunities, a critical, cruel father and a future he sees as stifling to start a new life in Canada. And he does just that, until his world implodes when his beloved wife Sara dies, leaving him with the daunting task of raising their eight-year-old daughter Alexia alone. In his grief he abandons Alexia and makes his way back to Greece, looking for the comfort and the love of his family to find nothing has changed. Rejected by his father once more, adrift in his homeland Nicolai finds solace where he can. He returns to Canada where he spends his life trying to make it up to his daughter for leaving her, while he keeps secret the child he fathered during his brief hiatus.
Nicolai's Daughters is a story of parallel journeys, where the main characters, Nicolai and Alexia stumble along searching for connection with each other and the world, trying to discover where they fit into the puzzle of their own narratives. Alexia is caught up in being the perfect daughter, the star student then employee, but throughout it all she keeps herself separate, aloof, protecting herself. This character becomes a little confusing, as she is too smart to be as naive as Harvey portrays her. It's difficult to buy that the razor-sharp Alexia wouldn't read the cues from Dan, a colleague who clearly has more than a professional interest in her.
When Alexia discovers the existence of her half sister upon her father's death, she reluctantly follows his wishes to deliver a mysterious package to her newly discovered sibling, Theodora. Theodora is simultaneously on her own journey, trying to be the good Greek wife and mother, never feeling like she is getting it right, confused by the whispers, the mystery surrounding her dead father, the unanswered questions.
Through this journey Harvey takes us into the Greek psyche and paints a culture of contradictions. A way of life wherein many ways time has stood still — what the neighbour's think, how the family is perceived remains core. Gossip is as inherently Greek as their strong coffee. Yet the characters do whatever they can to side step it. Secrets are kept. Loved ones are shut out. Every step taken is watched and judged. One dare not venture outside the lines, or veer from tradition, as forgiveness is elusive.
But despite what at first may seem closed minded and harsh, we are charmed by these characters. We are invited into their modest homes, poor in possessions but rich in love, caring and tradition. Led in by way of sumptuous descriptions of place, rituals and celebrations that create a backdrop for the wonderful, complex characters the author has imagined. The reader finds a new or renewed appreciation for the Greek way of being that makes us yearn for that kind of connection.
Harvey has created a poignant, hopeful story of how love, compassion and acceptance can heal old wounds and reminds us that we need to look back to look forward, so we can start again and become our better selves.
Stella Harvey will be launching her book at SLCC on Oct. 12 at 6:30 p.m.
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