By Ekta R. Garg
April 24, 2019
Genre: Historical fiction
Release date: April 4, 2017
Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars
A girl barely survives the Nazi occupation of her village by running away with a family friend and a Jewish refugee. As the three make their way across the country, they will lose and find one another and themselves countless times before the war ends. Author James William Brown tries to follow his characters but lets the story meander in the rambling novel My Last Lament.
In modern-day Greece in a small northeastern village, Aliki is approached by a graduate student focusing on the tradition of lamenting. Aliki is one of the last lamenters left in the region, a professional mourner hired to keen when people die. Left with a tape recorder and several blank cassette tapes, Aliki begins sharing her thoughts on her life, the heritage of mourning for those not related to her, and her experiences during World War II.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Germans have occupied major sections of Greece. A teenage Aliki watches in horror as these men in their crisp uniforms and tight formations shoot her father for stealing squash, a crime committed only because of the abject hunger he and Aliki are experiencing. Other villagers are beaten, tortured, and killed for even lesser deeds named as crimes.
After her father’s death, Chrysoula, a family friend, takes in Aliki. Aliki gets along well with Chrysoula’s son, Takis, and views him with fondness and affection as a younger brother. The two play and laugh; it’s almost like life has taken a new shape of normal.
When Aliki discovers that Chrysoula has also taken in two Jewish refugees, however, her world changes. The mother and son managed to escape the Nazis in Athens and have scurried from village to village since then seeking help. Their arrival means an increased level of danger for everyone, especially Aliki, Chrysoula, and Takis. Takis, in particular, takes an instant dislike to the son, Stelios, and the way Stelios captivates Aliki with the shadow puppets he creates and the stories he tells with them.
Despite Chrysoula’s best efforts to keep Stelios and his mother hidden, someone eventually alerts the Germans. A bloody battle ensues, and Aliki, Takis, and Stelios manage to escape. They head to Athens where Stelios is sure they can find help. The journey takes them from Athens to the island of Crete, from a grand home to a prison camp. The shadow puppets become a means of survival and a way to forget the horrors they have witnessed, but they also stand as testament to all that they have lost.
Author James William Brown begins the book with a unique framing method. Dividing the story into “cassettes”—that is, the number of tapes Aliki uses to tell her story—he gives readers the chance to “listen in” as Aliki shares her thoughts with the unnamed college student. The unusual storytelling method may entice target audience members to begin reading, but the story ambles along. While some of the experiences Aliki relates certainly make for compelling reading, at some point readers might wonder what any of it has to do with lamenting.
The argument, of course, could be made that the tapes themselves are a final lament for Aliki before she finishes out her days as an old woman in a forgotten village. Unfortunately, that idea isn’t strong enough to sustain an entire book. Anyone personally touched by the Holocaust has a right to lament, to grieve, what they’ve lost. Brown misses out on an incredible opportunity to showcase this unusual rural institution; what follows, instead, is just another book about World War II.
Brown scores a few points for giving readers a glimpse into the horrors of Nazism as they affected Greece, a country not normally associated with the extreme movement. The book serves as a reminder that this terrible period in history affected many more people than initially known. Had Brown attempted a more straightforward approach with the novel, it would have offered much more compelling reading. Instead, one character suffers from mental illness, another goes to a prisoner camp, and Aliki slips into her laments at the strangest times without much rhyme or reason.
On almost all accounts, the book flounders until it limps to an end that doesn’t seem to do much. I recommend readers Bypass My Last Lament.