Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017: Maximum Shelf: My Last Lament

Berkley Books: My Last Lament by James William Brown

Berkley Books: My Last Lament by James William Brown

Berkley Books: My Last Lament by James William Brown

Berkley Books: My Last Lament by James William Brown

My Last Lament

by James William Brown

Aliki, one of the last lamenters in Greece, is dragging the weight of her life behind her in the opening pages of My Last Lament, James William Brown's brilliant work of historical fiction. "There is this about the dead: they're so light. They slip in and out of our world with no effort whatsoever. By contrast, we seem heavy, dragging our lives along behind us like an old sack of stones."

To lessen this burden, Aliki begins to tell the story of her life, speaking into a tape recorder left by a sociologist studying the art of Greek laments. As her memories unfold and unpack themselves, her recounting evolves into a lament itself, for all that she has loved and lost in her long life.

By framing the story as a kind of oral memoir, Brown (Blood Dance) has crafted a novel that is at once epic in its scope and yet remains grounded in the confines of one woman's life. Aliki shines through every page of My Last Lament, a strong and consistent voice that proves a near-perfect vessel for Brown's lyrical prose and centers a story that moves backwards and forwards through time to recount both Aliki's past and her present.

In the present day, Aliki serves as a village lamenter, singing and chanting for the dead in tribute to their lives. As a child, she lived through the German occupation of Greece during World War II, witnessing the execution of her father and a brutal massacre in her village. But for Aliki--and indeed, the Greek people--the horrors of war did not end with the Allied liberation of Greece. A vicious and bitter civil war raged throughout the 1940s, catching Aliki in its clutches as she continued to search for a safe place to call her own.

My Last Lament is ambitious in scope and subject, spanning two wars, multiple Greek islands and timelines in both the past and the present. Brown demonstrates a keen understanding of modern Greek history throughout, incorporating an impressive amount of detail, both real and imagined, around the German occupation of Greece and the civil war that followed after the Allied intervention in 1944. As a witness to both wars, as well as the tentative periods of peace that followed, Aliki's recollections speak to the horrors of combat, and also the humanity of it, as individual lives are damaged by atrocities happening on a grand scale.

Even more impressive (and a good deal less violent) is Brown's incorporation of two traditional, if dying, Grecian art forms into his novel: shadow puppets and lamenting. The former features heavily in Aliki's past, as she first watched and then learned to perform traditional shadow-puppet plays. Over time, these puppet shows become a kind of story within a story, shifting to incorporate aspects of Aliki's own life--and those of her co-performers--as they evolve.

Lamenting is, unsurprisingly, central to Aliki's present, though her moving and poetic laments are woven throughout both timelines in My Last Lament; Aliki encounters death again and again, as a child and as an adult. That is not to suggest, however, that everything in Aliki's life is grim and dark. Indeed, the two art forms combine in Brown's skilled hands in such a way that they feel like a celebration, not a mourning, of the two parts of a life: the living and the dying. "Laments are surrounded by life," she explains to the cassette recorder, "even though provoked by death. They're not separate from it, because on their own, laments don't make much sense. They've grown out of my life as much as out of the lives of the dead."

Brown's novel is notable for its rich historical detail; strong, nuanced characters and epic, sweeping storyline. What is most impressive, however, is the careful, delicate way he takes all of these elements and knits them together in a novel that is dense but never dull, complex but never confusing. With striking language brought fully to life in Aliki's unwavering voice, Brown's reflections on life, death, love, grief and searching for a place to call home are at once heartbreaking and beautiful.

My Last Lament is a recollection of one woman's life in one specific time and place. But any excellent work of historical fiction proves itself relevant beyond the boundaries of time and setting. Brown's ability to thoughtfully address meaningful reflections while examining the very essence of what it means to be alive--in any time, any place--is what makes My Last Lament exemplary of the genre. "How does any story end? It just turns into the beginning of another one, the one about us all." --Kerry McHugh

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9780399583407, April 4, 2017

Berkley Books: My Last Lament by James William Brown

James William Brown: Hearing the Voice of a Character

photo: Jane McLachlan Brown

James William Brown is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford, and has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, Mass. He lived and taught in Greece for 10 years, and previously worked as the director of editorial programs for various textbook companies. Now retired, Brown lives with his wife in the Boston area. My Last Lament is his second novel, after Blood Dance.

World War II is a popular period for historical fiction, but the years immediately following the war are often overlooked. What drew you to writing about this time?

It was really the voice of Aliki, the narrator, that got this all started. After I finished my first book, I began a second manuscript, and the character of Aliki evolved in that work. I enjoyed working with her as a character, even though the manuscript never really came to much. When it was finished, I started writing a series of short stories about Aliki, and I'd planned for the third one to be about her childhood. When I figured backwards with her age, I realized she would have been a child during the German occupation of Greece, and then the Greek Civil War that followed that. And they'd always been periods that interested me. But ultimately, I followed where Aliki led. When I'm writing, I hear a voice in my imagination and just fall into the story. I don't really know where it's going to go. I just follow along.

There seems to be a great historical understanding of the horrors the Germans brought to the territories they occupied. But much of the violence seen in My Last Lament, both during the war and after, is driven by Greeks attacking fellow Greeks. Was that surprising to you?

It's just history. At the end of the German occupation, there were many resistance groups that had come together during the occupation and they all began squabbling over who would be the new government. And it turned into a civil war. That's historical record. The ruins of that war are still very visible in Greece today. Most families had people who were involved in it, and there's still a lot of resentment about things that happened during that period.

My Last Lament is Aliki's oral account of her own history, which she is speaking into a cassette tape player. What drove you to choose that structure?

I don't really make hard decisions about what my characters do or say in a conscious way. They have a life of their own in my imagination, and I go where they lead.

There are a lot of American sociological studies of rural lament practices in Greece, usually conducted by Greek-American sociologists who go to interview these women and record their laments. Because I've read several of these studies, it felt quite natural for Aliki to be interviewed in such a manner. Of course, Aliki does it her own way, and tells her whole life story instead of recording only her laments--although her story ends up becoming a lament of itself, in a way.

Aliki's story shifts back and forth in time. Since your writing happens so organically, did you find it hard to keep those threads together?

That was pretty much accidental. Everything in my writing is pretty much accidental. I never plan things out or plot them. I don't write synopses or outlines, so I never quite know what's going to happen when I sit down to work.

When I started having Aliki tell her story, it was originally just going to be her childhood. But I wanted to include things that were happening in her day-to-day life in her narration, because it seemed sort of unnatural that she would sit down and talk into a recorder for 300 pages without interruptions. As that strand of her present-day story grew and became more significant, I realized at some point that the two strands--the outer strand of her daily life and the inner strand of the story she was telling--were going to have to come together in a kind of braid. But I had no idea how that was going to happen, or even if it would happen. It really wasn't until I was into a third or fourth draft that I asked myself a key question, the answer to which moved the subplot into the outer story. Then the whole thing started to come together.

How would you say traditional Greek literature shaped My Last Lament, if at all?

I wasn't really thinking of the classical tragedies like Oedipus and so forth when I was writing. Those really didn't come to mind while I was working on this novel, but I know them well, so maybe subconsciously they were an influence. I did think consciously of the Iliad, just because I've always loved the Iliad, and I've read it many times. It seemed to me that there were some parallels between the Greek civil war of the 1940s and the Trojan War--at least in the kinds of things people go through in wartime. At one point Aliki asks Stelios what the Iliad is about, and he says "Greeks at war." In response, she tells him that she can see that by just looking out the window.

There's also a kind of lyricism about the Iliad that I wanted to infuse in the book. There is a theory that the Iliad began as a series of laments for the Greek soldiers on the Trojan plain. That theory played very much into the fact that Aliki is a lamenter who is making a recording of her life, which is, in a sense, a lament of that life, just as the Iliad could be a lament for all the lives lost in the Trojan War.

Is there anything you think readers may find surprising in your writing?

The one question that is most often asked of me is how is it that I, as a man, can write from the point of view of a woman--and a woman of a different culture, no less? And the answer to that is that I seem to write better when I write about someone who is the least like myself.

I think it's partly because I sort of got into writing through acting. In high school and college, I did a lot of speech and drama work. And the thing that fascinated me most about it was this idea that when you're in a role, you are essentially trying on another personality. I realized, at some point along my career, that I didn't have to try on a role that someone else had written. I could write it myself. And that's always been endlessly fascinating, to write about someone very unlike me, from a culture completely unlike my own. --Kerry McHugh

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