“So why do people live in one place instead of going to see the world?”THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
After an exciting visit to the Hollywood of Africa, we’re traveling up to Greece for the first saga of my blog. Of course, you could also consider The House by the River to be domestic fiction, but I’ve already covered that. My blog, my rules. My 14th blog book was originally published in Greek in 2007 as Το σπίτι δίπλα στον ποταμό. Then it was published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2017.
Contrary to my last book, this one took me quite a bit longer than a day to read. Specifically, two months and two days to finish. For those that read my fourth post back in March, you’d be on familiar ground with Ten Women by reading this book.
Ironically, two of my would-be traveling buddies tried to persuade me to visit Greece on my annual trip this year. I declined for a variety of reasons (some of which I’ll cover below) but still enjoyed this visit to the Hellenic Republic.
Spoiler: I could never quite figure out the exact time period of this book, though World War II was mentioned near the beginning. Later on, television was marveled at as a new innovation in entertainment. You really need to keep the time period in mind, as well as the Greek culture, when following these sisters on their travels and so-called fast marriages. However, I wish the story would have made an effort to weave between the sisters’ lives, instead of isolating them and making you play catch-up at the end.
Lena Manta was born in Istanbul to Greek parents; ironic with the historic animosity between Greeks and Turks. She moved to Greece at a young age and now lives with her husband and two children on the outskirts of Athens. Though trained as a nursery school teacher, she began directing puppet theater before transitioning into writing articles for local newspapers.
Manta was proclaimed Author of the Year in both 2009 and 2011 by Greek Life & Style magazine. The House by the River is one of her thirteen novels, and the first to be translated into English.
It’s been three books, but we’re back to true translations! Gail Holst-Warhaft is a poet and translator and has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, prose writer, academic, and musician. She has published translations of Aeschylus and several of Greece’s leading novelists and poets. Beyond translations, her poem “Three Landscapes” won the Poetry Greece Award in 2001. The Fall of Athens, her most recent collection of poetry, essays, and stories about Greece, was published by Fomite Press in 2016.
While this was an easily read translation, the language was old-fashioned and a bit stilted overall. I’m not sure if that is a function of the story’s time period or how Greek language is meant to sound. My only real reference is My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
What I loved:
The dramatic descriptions. As mentioned earlier, I don’t know if it was a function of the translation or naturally occurring, but nearly every situation was life or death and deserving of Shakespearean-level metaphorical descriptions.
News of the wedding fell like fire from heaven on the village and like a lightning bolt on their families.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
Melissanthi felt the rain on her own face, but to her it wasn’t rain; it was the blood of her wounded spirit.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
The warm embrace of her in-laws was like balm to her soul, which, after so long, was finally at peace.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
The language struggles. While the book is mostly set in Greece, two of the sisters leave its borders. Julia moves to Yaounde, Cameroon for her husband’s job and Magdalini moves to Chicago with her aunt (ostensibly) for school.
The official language of the state was French, so she decided to learn it as soon as they set foot there. Of course there was a local dialect, but it wasn’t the only one. There were two hundred local dialects, Tayaris had said, and Julia’s eyes grew wide.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
It took Magdalini a whole year to adapt completely and to learn to speak English with ease, although she still had difficulty writing it, which made her study even more intensely.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
What I liked:
The passion. I’m still a bit conflicted about precisely liking this aspect of the book, but it was certainly memorable. Similar to romance novels, every one of the five sisters is beautiful and indescribably amazing in bed. Every husband and lover they encounter declares themselves forever changed. Though entertaining, this paragon of sexiness routine got a bit old the third, fourth, and fifth time around. No, the descriptions were never explicit, but overly detailed just the same.
He wanted them to be far away in a paradise made especially for them, where her body would grant him eternal life and at the same time torment him.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
But Christos hadn’t calculated the imponderable factor: that his love of Aspasia would make him lose his mind. Never in his life had he met a woman who was a living volcano, as incredible and daring as any man could be. Nothing concerned her except being in his arms. Her erotic games were extraordinary and made all his fantasies seem like adolescent daydreams.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
She gave herself to him with an intensity that shook him, leaving him breathless in her naked embrace, while at the same time he still felt thirsty for her.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
What I could do without:
The marriages. I am definitely not anti-marriage—I attended six weddings last year and hope to have my own soon. But I am opposed to marriage as one’s entire life focus and especially at such a young age. 20th century or not, there were some serious age differences!
Gerasimos met Theodora one summer in Pieria when she was just twelve years old and he was twenty-seven.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
A week after Melissanthi finished middle school, the matchmaker came to the house with her first suitor.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
The youth. This distaste will take a little more description. Similar to the marriages mentioned above, the author seemed to have a fixation on youth and men attracted to it. Theodora had not even entered puberty when Gerasimos first became attracted to her. Melissanthi was scouted by the matchmaker at only 15 and her youngest sister never lost her naivety (see below). Unfortunately, men in this novel are lauded for being attracted to virginal qualities after experiencing many other women. Yet, Melissanthi and Aspasia are both punished for having their own affairs of the heart.
“I missed you,” she said, and her voice had a childish tone that moved him.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
The morality. Before you cry heathen, hear me out. I’m not saying I wanted a story of evil and licentiousness, I just wanted a well-rounded story. All of the sisters left their isolated village and single mother for different reasons. They all encountered tragedies in their lives, and all found their way back to the river. But the story painted these journeys as mistakes of independence and misplaced feminism. They all reached too high and had to fall back down to their rural, domestic origins.
At the same time she thought about her husband; he had married to have a family, not for his wife to be a singer.THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
“She came here to study, not fall in love with some man we hardly know.”THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER
While not my slowest read to date (that would be 21 months for The Crimson Petal and the White), this book certainly took longer than I expected. The last chapter takes a few paragraphs to sum up each sisters’ last twenty years, and it’s quite necessary. I only gave a small glimpse into the metaphors, dramatic arguments, and moral lessons resplendent throughout this book. Finally, it ends with a Bible passage. I am too much of a heathen to enjoy that, let’s be honest.
I gave this 3/5* on Amazon. Would the book be framed better as short stories? Let me know in the comments!