My Last Lament, by James William Brown

Aliki’s tragic life seems appropriate for a professional lamenter. We learn about her life as she records her story on tapes that were left for her by an American ethnographer—who really only wanted Aliki’s laments and talk about Greek “funerary customs”—in My Last Lament, by James William Brown. The novel jumps back and forth as Aliki tells us about her left in the present and between 1943 and 1948, when Greece was occupied and then tried to get back on its feet after World War II.

The book opens with Aliki in the present, as an ethnographer explains what she wants in baffling (and hilarious) academese. Aliki lives alone in her home village and is occasionally called out to compose spontaneous laments for the oldest members of the community. Aliki is willing to humor the American, but she takes the opportunity to tell her own story in between recalled laments and village goings-on. She takes us back to 1943. Her village in mainland Greece has been occupied by German forces and everyone is hungry. We meet young Aliki just as her father has been executed for running a secret squash garden.

After Aliki’s father is killed, a neighbor takes her in. Unbeknownst to Aliki and Takis, the neighbor’s son, Chrysoula is also hiding a Jewish mother and son in her basement. When disaster strikes just as the Germans are about to leave the village, Aliki flees with Takis and the Jewish son, Stelios. The trio have their own odyssey across mainland Greece, Crete, and a remote Greek island over the next few years. Bad luck and bad decisions hound them along the way (though there are no sirens or cyclops). Aliki and Stelios are such strivers that, after a few chapters, I just wished that they could find a bit of peace and happiness.

My Last Lament offers a look into a theater of the war I didn’t know much about. I knew even less about post-war Greece, which seems even more dangerous than the Germans because there are so many armed factions fighting for control of the liberated country. I wish there had been a bit more about Aliki’s mystical laments, but this book is laced with Greece puppet theater and customs that I very much enjoyed. (There are descriptions of food that will probably send readers to the nearest Greek restaurant.) Brown also pulls off the trick of making both the past and present sections of the book equally interesting. If you have a taste for the tragic, My Last Lament is a terrific read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

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