Review: Nicolai’s Daughters by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

$22.95 paper 978-1-897109-97-7, 316 pp., 5½ x 8½, Signature Editions, Oct.  Reviewed from finished book

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, a founding member of the Whistler’s Writing Group, found the heart of her first novel while visiting family in Greece. In the Achaean region of Kalavryta, she came across a monument to Nazi massacre of 696 Greek men and boys. The atrocity—and its effects on the families of its survivors—provides the backbone for Nicolai’s Daughters’ plot. The novel flips between the perspectives of Nicolai, a Vancouver immigrant who returns to Achaea after the death of his wife, and his grown daughter Alexia, who repeats her father’s trip 24 years later. Both discover a family secret – Nicolai’s father let German soldiers sodomize him on the condition that his family not be killed – but while Nicolai runs from the horror, Alexia decides to face up to it and its repercussions head-on.

The parallel narrative structure suits the plot perfectly. Nicolai and Alexia retrace each other’s steps through a village kept small by a disastrous economy; the simplicity of the setting allows Harvey to demonstrate how differences in character and circumstance can result in drastically different life choices. In some of the more Oedipal scenes – when Alexia allows her father’s boyhood friend to seduce her, for example – the reappearance of characters at different historical periods maximizes the dramatic irony and impact. Harvey’s short scenes push her complex plot forward quickly and her simple sentence structures complement some of her harsher themes: abandonment, banishment, incest, and sacrifice.

The problem is, despite its heavy subject matter, Nicolai’s Daughters spends more time moving Alexia through a clichéd regime of Mediterranean relaxation – sex on the beach, raucous relatives, and Greek cuisine – than it does explaining how the aftermath of Kalavryta’s experience affected the region. In these scenes, Harvey’s writing is vague and her sentiments automatic. The result too often more closely resembles a chick-lit travelogue than the heavy literary novel her weighty material implies.

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