The furies of family: Julietta Harvey, Fear of Light.

Julietta Harvey, Fear of Light. Starhaven Press, 2022.

Seven years ago, I posted on Julietta Harvey’s first two novels. Familiar Wars portrays abrasive family dynamics in a Greek society (Dr Harvey was born in Greece) that is fiercely partriarchal – its men display ‘casual misogyny and [a] swaggeringly patronising attitude’ to their wives and daughters. Women were denied agency and autonomy.

In its sequel, One Third of Paradise, the youngest sister, Eleni, is appalled by her father’s erratic, tyrannical behaviour – he’s a King Lear type – but she’s unable to join her ‘vulture’ sisters in tearing him apart.

Julietta Harvey Fear of Light cover In Dr Harvey’s new novel, Fear of Light, the protagonist is Fotini – her name means ‘bright with light’. As a girl of about 17 she commits what her oppressive father and equally brutal brother consider a shaming transgression. A terrible crime ensues.

It’s another unwavering examination of a family drama that would have intrigued Freud. During this dark period of punishment Fotini becomes photophobic – hence the novel’s title: she can’t bear the bright light which her own name ironically signifies (imagery of light and dark pervades the narrative).

This cruel treatment is witnessed and more or less condoned by most of the family’s fellow villagers: ‘a shared blame oppressed them’ when the crime is revealed. Their mountain community is backward, distrustful of everyone (with good reason: land-grabs, greed and treachery are commonplace), ‘forgotten by God’ – and the modern world: its very name is redolent of darkness, the absence of light (and, by extension, enlightenment). Women are condemned to a life of domestic drudgery, hard work and servitude to their male masters.

The heavy symbolism deriving from literature and Greek myth in the two earlier novels is less obvious in Fear of Light, but it’s still apparent. As the novel opens Fotini sits eating a pomegranate by a cracked statue of a woman who appears to be Persephone. In the Greek myth she was abducted by Hades into the underworld when he tricked her into eating a pomegranate; she was doomed to spend a third of each year underground, returning each spring to her former world. It’s a chthonic vegetation myth, accounting for the cycle of the seasons, and the rebirth of life and vegetation after the dark months of winter.

One old woman says the crack in the statue came from the girl’s sorrow when the Civil War came to the village. Another says no, it hides ‘old, very old crimes.’ Fotini herself thought the statue ‘broke from pain and sorrow’. This symbolism aptly and poetically sets the scene for this deeply disturbing and moving novel. Like Eleni in the two previous novels, Fotini has two sisters and a mother who passively submit to the brutish father and brother, and accept their violent, oppressive treatment of her.

Decades later the crime is discovered by outsiders, men who’d come to prepare to bring light (electricity) to this benighted village. What follows is the spinechilling story of the trial of her family, the revelation of its ‘dark secret’, and its repercussions in the local and national community. The scandal of ‘paternal cruelty and old family crimes’ causes other stories of similar heartless humiliation of young women by their menfolk to emerge – not just in backward rural villages, but even in the big cities – it’s not just backward villagers who are guilty: all are implicated, responsible. It’s a family tragedy that symbolises the ‘true dark history of their [the Greek people’s] past: as far back as the Civil War.’

Much of this section of the novel is narrated by another Eleni, who reports for a newspaper on the unfolding, horrifying story as it unfolds. She seems to be the same character as the one in the other two novels, but restored to youth: she too has been to the USA as a student, and is about to set off for research work at Cambridge in England. She remembers seeing Fotini’s mountain range from her family’s summer retreat on the island of Thasos, off the coast at Thessaloniki, which features centrally in the earlier novels. As she learns more about ‘her native land and her compatriots’, she feels an understandable impulse to run away, but also, paradoxically, a ‘comradeship’ with them emerges as they recognise and debate ‘their own bitter stories’, their own ‘ghosts in the dark’. All societies have defects: this is a salutary story for all of us.

The courtroom becomes a locus of collective guilt and shame. The crowd witnessing this shameful exposure of misogyny sees itself reflected. The women had been

…taught from birth to stay covered, hidden, small: and they followed that order with wilfulness.  They were submissive – with obduracy. Obedient and docile, with a slowly burning fire of resentment…Did they believe that in these hallowed rooms of justice light could reveal and tame the furies of their own family?

Eleni had taken for granted ‘a family’s love and care. She now discovers the disabling things not seen or understood, hidden behind walls or locked away…’

Fear of Light is also, then, as one of the city-dwellers remarks about the trial, ‘like a cruel fairytale. And now it’s time for the prince to come back to life and the princess to wake up young and beautiful and wise!’ The villagers appease their consciences by deciding that poor Fotini’s mistreatment changed their fortunes:

She had her youth taken away from her so that the village would see its children, and their children, come back. In her living death – because that was no life – she brought to us new life.

But interpreting the cruelty meted out to Fotini by her family as a variation on the Persephone or Sleeping Beauty stories doesn’t validate this behaviour or these attitudes. This novel is a searing indictment of the misogyny that still pervades most modern societies – and if it’s called out it evokes accusations that its denigrators are the guilty ones, the ‘woke’.

I hope I haven’t made FoL sound depressingly grim or polemical: despite the harshness it depicts, it’s a life-affirming, unflinching account of what families can become if we turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of toxic masculinity. In the end light prevails over darkness.

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat (Holland House Books, 2020; first published 1985)

 John Harvey is a renowned Cambridge academic who’s written some fascinating studies on the nature of and relationship between the visual and literary arts (see my list of links to his non-fiction works at the end of this post). He’s also a prize-winning novelist (my list of posts on his novels is also at the end of this post) – not to be confused with the author by the same name of the popular crime fiction series featuring Charlie Resnick.

J Harvey Coup d'Etat Coup d’Etat is set in Greece during the military dictatorship 1967-74 following the ‘Colonels’ coup’. This group of far-right, ultra-nationalist officers seized power and brutally suppressed all opposition, establishing what was euphemistically called a ‘national government’. To consolidate and enforce the junta’s stranglehold on the country the colonels transformed the judiciary into a corrupt system of kangaroo courts: those who dared to question their regime were summarily imprisoned, tortured, executed or exiled.

The central characters of this gripping, epic novel (it’s 600 pages long, but needs to be in order to depict the scale of events and their effects on the Greek people) enable the author to anatomise the functioning of this dictatorship. On the side of democracy is a brave, idealistic lawyer who tries initially to use his expertise to defend opponents of the junta, and then becomes another of its victims. He suffers terribly while in prison, and his wife undergoes her own ordeal trying to cajole the authorities into even revealing where they’ve imprisoned him, let alone to visit him.

Supporters of the regime are not shown simply as ogres and sadists, though many come close – not just the torturers in prison, but those who command them. More nuanced in this aspect of the narrative are those who strive to further their own political careers by sucking up to those higher up; like many in Nazi Germany, they were complicit with the regime while fully aware of its more brutal tendencies. Some are ideologues who have bought into the colonels’ aspirations to create a new Greek empire – with devious plans to reconquer Turkey by staging another coup in Cyprus, which could then be used as a springboard to invasion of their old enemy. Others are simply amoral in their ambition to use the corrupt system to enhance their status and gain more of the trappings of wealth and power they admire in their superiors.

An early reviewer described Coup d’Etat as Tolstoyan, and I don’t find this an exaggeration. Dr Harvey unflinchingly portrays the viciousness and monomania of the military regime, its ruthlessness in imposing its dictatorship in ways which have become horribly familiar over the last century, and which continue to fill news reports today about the war in Ukraine.

But he also shows enormous sympathy for and insight into the hearts and minds of his characters representing both sides in this terrible period of Greek history. Families caught up in the tumult of the times are shown as being often split in terms of their political allegiances and motivation – as all families are (I’m trying to avoid falling into the usual Tolstoy quotation).

Most impressive among the literary achievements of Coup d’Etat is the central trio of the loving couple of the lawyer Vangelis and his devoted wife Chryssa. Here again the author shows a capacity for showing human frailty and weakness even at times of enormous courage and resilience in their struggle against the cruel regime. The character of their English friend Michael, a journalist, enables John Harvey to provide a convincing outsider’s perspective on the turmoil and suffering caused in the lives of these ordinary, decent people by their military oppressors, but also to introduce a complicating, heartbreaking alternative love story into these already precariously situated lives.

In the foreword to this new edition of the novel, first published in 1985 and now reissued by Holland House as part of a full set of his novels (my thanks to the author and his publishers for providing copies of some of those I hadn’t yet read), Dr Harvey explains his own personal interest in telling this harrowing but uplifting story. In 1968 he married Julietta in her home city of Thessaloniki, and they witnessed many of the events depicted in the novel, and were told more about them by those who had been caught up in events during that dreadful time in the world’s oldest democracy.

This explains the gritty authenticity of the novel, but also the heartfelt, passionate engagement with it by the narrator, the sweep and tone of the narrative, and the richness of the characterisation.

My previous posts on John Harvey’s novels:

The Paint Shop (1979) HERE

The Subject of a Portrait (2014) HERE (three posts, including one by the author)

Pax (2019) HERE

Non-fiction/academic:

The Poetics of Sight (2015) HERE

Clothes (2008) HERE

Men in Black (1995); The Story of Black (2013) HERE