“The gods gave the Greeks this idyll, but look what they have done with it.”
Cartes Postales from Greece, by Victoria Hislop, is a series of intriguing vignettes woven into the story of a spurned lover’s odyssey, which is itself wrapped inside a tale of misdirected communications. A journey, both physical and spiritual, is documented in a series of postcards and then a notebook, posted to a woman the sender did not know.
The book includes beautiful, colour pictures of each setting in Greece. Set alongside the prose, they evoke an idyll, yet this is not a tale of paradise found. As with anything touched by man, there is also darkness.
The story opens in London where a young women is working in telesales having left her family home in Cardiff to seek the capital’s bright lights. That brightness is still lacking from her life. When postcards start arriving at her basement flat, addressed to someone she assumes must have been a previous tenant, they carry with them a ray of sunshine she badly needs. They are signed only ‘A’ and arrive with a regularity that she comes to anticipate, a highlight in her grey days. She pins the cards to an underused corkboard admiring the tableau thus created. She daydreams about their provenance.
When, after many months, the flow of missives ceases, she decides it is time to act. She will visit some of the places depicted for herself.
On the morning of her departure a parcel arrives containing a notebook. She adds this to her luggage and reads a portion each evening whilst away. Its contents form the heart of this book.
‘A’ is a middle aged art expert writing a book on Cycladic sculpture. He is using his publisher’s advance to fund research, travelling around Greece and its islands. Here he encounters welcoming locals offering up a plethora of tales based around each location. He recounts his travels and these anecdotes, painting a picture of a Greece in transition. Family remains all important. The financial crisis, its effects, and the resentments it causes are gently explored and reactions explained.
As with so many traditional cultures, the role expected of women grated. In a patriarchal society men’s egos demand massage, children are expected to pander to their parents’ wishes. The other side of this is the support offered, although always at a price.
The Greece portrayed is one of a society well used to having to fight for its freedom. The histories of Ancient Greece, the centuries long Turkish occupation, and the more recent experiences of the Second World War are all touched upon. These offer interesting background to tales of people and the hold of place, the draw of home. The beauty of the landscape and way of life are presented in all their colours. It can be as picture perfect as any tourist could wish for, but there are also many shades of grey.
I found the denouement a little contrived but consider this more a book of short stories. As such it is an enjoyable read. Greece is presented with much sympathy but is not overly sweetened.
A book to transport the reader, a holiday in the mind. If I return to the country I shall look around with fresh eyes.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.