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“How is it I hear you say, that Dionysos Mavroulis, son of Haralambos and the saintly Maroulia, God rest their souls, ended his days dead on a rubbish dump near Pasalimani with his throat cut? That, my dear reader, is the question I have often asked myself. If you will spare me a little of your time I will share with you my story so that others might learn from such a fate.” So opens Kathryn Gauci’s new novel. This time she takes us to Piraeus in Greece in the 1930s. A time when Greece was a desperately poor nation, but Dionysos Mavroulis, a refugee from Asia Minor, has even less. Plagued by the guilt of his own survival and the loss of his parents and future wife, Dionysos spends his time in hashish dens bent on self-destruction until an unlikely benefactor takes him under his wing and gives him hope for a far, far brighter future. The trouble is, we know from the opening lines that the hero of this story is going to end up dead on a rubbish heap.
Dionysos is a man without a future; a man who embraces destiny and risks everything for love. He escapes Smyrna in 1922 disguised as an old woman. Alienated and plagued by feelings of remorse, he spirals into poverty and hitting rock bottom, he meets Aleko, an accomplished bouzouki player. Recognising in the impoverished refugee a rare musical talent, Aleko offers to teach him the bouzouki. Dionysos’ hope for a better life is further fuelled when he meets Seraphina — the singer with the voice of a nightingale. “If I knew then, dear reader, what I know now, I should have turned on my heels and left. But no, instead, I stood there transfixed on the beautiful image of Seraphina. In that moment my fate was sealed.”
Told in the first person by a well-educated young man born into a prosperous merchant family but forced from his home with only the clothes on his back, we see Dionysos grasp at a chance to escape aimlessness and poverty. His benefactor, Aleko, watches him dance in a tavern and recognises his rare intuition for music and rhythm. This then opens a world of new experience for Dionysos, but it is also his introduction to the grubby underworld of Papazoglou, local mob boss and tavern owner, and where he meets Seraphina, who will be his downfall. What we do not know - and I shall not say because it would spoil the story – is why Aleko and his wife foster Dionysos for no obvious gain. Their motive, however, is the key to the plot, and in part to the fate of the lovers.
Gauci creates in this novel the smoke, songs and music of Papazoglou’s tavern so convincingly one can almost hear the strings through the tobacco-fuelled murk. It is also like watching a 1940s cine noir movie. At times I was reminded of Oran Pamuk’s novels, but mostly the film versions of Raymond Chandler stories, perhaps because we know our modest hero is fated thanks to a stunningly beautiful woman. Seraphina is a classic femme fatal: a woman gifted with a hypnotic voice and haunting beauty, both worldly and yet vulnerable, and at the mercy of the ruthless, despicable Papazoglou. Cine noir meets Greek tragedy – a tragedy played out with depression era realism.
My only misgiving about this book is that as a reader I wasn't able to hope for a happy outcome: Dionysos’ refusal to face facts and his lack of deviousness means that what is going to happen is just a little too obvious – although the lovers so very nearly made it. Nevertheless, this is definitely a Discovered Diamond.
© J.G. Harlond
ARC copy reviewed
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