Today we have a guest post written by a good friend of mine, Mark Stephenson. It is a review of his favorite novels with a Greek background. In fact, his love of the country has inspired him to set a large part of his own debut novel, a thriller called The Last Messenger, on the island of Crete. It is to be published later this year, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, you could visit his blog here.
My favourite novels set in Greece
It’s over forty years since my first visit to Greece. The collapse of the military junta had only just occurred and tourism was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now. Package tours were available to the larger islands of Corfu, Rhodes, Crete and Kos but if you wanted to find the real Greece your best bet was to fly into Athens and head down to Piraeus and hope for the best with a ferry. Island hopping in those days required plenty of time as ferry timetables, unlike now, were erratic. We didn’t have much time so took an old Russian-made hydrofoil to the Saronic islands of Poros, Hydra and Spetse which were just a short journey from the Athens port. I was desperate to go because I’d just read The Magus. My list is a personal one, in no particular order of preference. Please let us know if you recommend any other novels with a Greek setting which are not included here.
THE MAGUS by John Fowles
The Magus is set on the fictional island of Phraxos which the author admits is based on the island of Spetse. It is a book that is beguiling in many ways and is regarded as a classic (published in 1966). I read it in my twenties and it made a great impression on me. It is not for everyone, especially if you don’t like a story which often escapes from reality and can be misogynistic in tone. There are twists and turns and improbable story lines. It is a mystical journey on the human condition and the meaning of love. Perfect if you want to be submerged in the romance and spiritual presence of the Greek landscape.
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY by Patricia Highsmith
If you enjoyed the Ripley novels, you will enjoy this one which has a perfect command of its setting in Athens and Crete. This is a crime novel involving a war of wills between two American men in Greece who are both running away from something. Chester is a conman and Rydal, a young drifter, hanging around Athens seducing the tourists, is looking for adventure. Chester reminds Rydal of his father who he doesn’t get on with. Colette, Chester’s wife, is caught up in a menage a trois between the two men who become increasingly entwined when Chester’s life of deception catches up with him.
CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN by Louis De Bernieres
If you’ve seen the film starring Nicholas Gage and Penelope Cruz, you may have decided not to read the novel because you know the story. My advice is don’t be put off if you love reading because the emotions of the characters and the historical background of the story are so much better described in the novel. Set in Kefalonia, the early part of the novel is full of humour and the joys of life. The onset of the Second World War does not seem to affect this idyll even when the Italians occupy the island as Captain Corelli and his men prefer to play music and make love not war. The contrast at the end of the novel when the Germans arrive on the island is shocking and deeply moving.
THE ISLAND by Victoria Hislop
Another fictional story built around historical fact. This time the story is set in Spinalonga, a leper colony off the coast of Crete. I’ve visited the island which is no longer occupied and I can understand why Victoria Hislop was inspired to write the story. You can still see the buildings where the lepers lived and gain a sense of their community even though they were afflicted by this terrible disease. This book is not a classic piece of writing but is an easy beach read which addresses a serious subject about how leprosy affected the lives of ordinary people.
ZORBA THE GREEK by Nikos Kazantzakis
This is a must read if you want to understand the spirit behind all that Greek dancing you’ve done on your holiday. Zorba’s personality encapsulates a love for the joys of life and to hell with the consequences. He is contrasted with the narrator who is Kazantzakis lacking the confidence to live dangerously. They have many adventures together and you are left with a feeling that living for the moment is not such a bad idea. If you like Kazantzakis then also read Report to Greco which is an autobiographical account of his travels through Greece.
OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN by Evelyn Waugh
This book is the second in the so-called Sword of Honour trilogy. I’ve chosen this novel for its brilliant writing and humour. It finds its way into this list because it describes the evacuation of troops from Crete after the German invasion. Although about a third of the novel is set in Greece, the story’s main theme is about the chaos of war.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller
This retells the story of The Iliad in a sexy and exciting way. The love story between Achilles and Helen is one of the legends that we all know but few of us admit to reading Homer’s poem from beginning to end. This book makes the story much more accessible. When you visit Greece and see one of its many ancient monuments, it’s books like this that turn those pile of stones you are staring at into something much more evocative.
OTHER CRIME FICTION SET IN GREECE
There are several authors writing crime series set in Greece. Paul Johnston has Alexander Mavros who is a private investigator based in Athens. I’ve read The Silver Stain which tells the story of murder on the set of a movie being shot in Crete. Murder in Mykonos is the first book in the series by Jeffrey Siger. His protagonist is Andreas Kaldis, a former Athens detective. The story opens when a female tourist is discovered on a pile of bones under the floor of a remote mountain church. This starts a hunt for a ritualistic killer.
My favourite writer in this genre is Anne Zouroudi who writes stories involving her detective Hermes Dicktoros. What makes these books stand out for me is the way Anne writes about the landscape that is Greece. She has only just published the eighth in the series which I haven’t read so I’ll confine my comments to quoting some of the blurb on Amazon. “The Gifts of Poseidon is a hymn to Greece, to its beauty, its people and its food. Against this delectable back-drop, it is above all a compelling and dramatic story of the extraordinary sacrifices ordinary people will make to protect the ones they love. Anne Zouroudi writes beautifully – her books have all the sparkle and light of the island landscapes in which she sets them… Lovely, delicious prose and plot – as tasty as one of those irresistible honey-soaked Greek confections. Diaktoros is a delight.” (Alexander McCall Smith).
NOTE: I’ve read most of the books above, and will read the rest in the near future. Still, I’d like to add some more options to the list.
Eleni, by Nicholas Gage, is the gripping and often harrowing story of a mother determined to protect her children from the ravages of the Greek civil War at all costs and ultimately her own life. A true story (about Gage’s mother) and a must for any fan of Greek history.
The books of Mary Renault about Ancient Greece. Here is what Hilary Mantel has to say about them: “Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.” I read them all as a teenager and this has made me want to re-read.
The Petros Markaris mysteries, which feature Inspector Costas Haritos and could be compared to the novels of Donna Leon, only set in Athens instead of Venice. They give a comprehensive image of modern Greece.
I apologize for not putting in links to all the book but, frankly, I could not be bothered as it takes forever. They can all be found on Amazon.