Growing up, I read a lot of novels that centered on the Holocaust and World War II. Many of those novels were part of the public school curriculum and they frequently told tales of the persecuted and the brave people who tried to shelter them. While I still find myself drawn to historic novels set in that time period, in recent years I’ve found many more books that go beyond just the years of the war itself, just the Jews hiding in Germany and Austria and Poland, extending their stories into the years after the war officially ended and the world began piecing itself back together. Seeing examples of the lasting damage and turmoil across Europe after the Nazis had been defeated carries more weight for me now than it would have when I was in elementary and middle school. James William Brown’s upcoming My Last Lament is one such novel.
An old woman now, Aliki lives in the same village in Greece where she grew up but she is among the last of her generation and is the area’s last lamenter. An American student wanted to study and document her laments leaving a tape recorder behind so Aliki can record them when it’s convenient for her. In the process of trying to fulfill the student’s wishes, Aliki records the story of her own life beginning with her teenage days when her small village was occupied by German soldiers and two boys came into her life whom she would constantly find herself torn between. Takis is the young son of the woman who takes Aliki in after her father’s death and becomes a brother of sorts to her, though there is something strange and sometimes dangerous about him. Stelios is a little older than Aliki, a Greek Jew in hiding whom Aliki grows to love. But the lives of all three are threatened and tossed about as Greece reels in political unrest following the defeat and retreat of the Germans.
The cassette tape recording structure of the novel, while a creative way to tell the story, did prove difficult at times. Because the text is broken down by cassette tape sides there aren’t regular narrative breaks to help make the text easier to digest. In the beginning, especially, I found this frustrating. It also makes for some annoyingly overdramatic cliffhangers and then, because of the first person narrative itself, purposely calls attention to itself while doing so. Though Aliki’s “present” does eventually tie in to the tales of the life she is recounting, there is enough of the story itself that drifts from the narrative frame that I wonder if it was entirely worth the novelty of using it. It also gets used to explain away some of the textual inconsistencies and confusion such as everyone’s relative ages and just how much time passes between events.
The story itself though proves to be an overwhelmingly compelling tale of the tension between obligation and desire; the struggles against one’s environment, time, and place. Stories play an important role for the characters throughout as shadow puppet shows of traditional Greek folk heroes as well as epics like The Illiad prove useful on many levels. The oral tradition and durability of the tales are celebrated as their longevity is explained through the ways various characters are able to draw meaning from them to suit their own circumstances and needs. Teaching tools as well as a form of escapism, flexible and moldable and changeable, stories prove to be what we’re all left with in the end.
My Last Lament will be available for purchase April 4, 2017.