Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Athens 1941. After decades of political uncertainty, Greece is polarised between Right- and Left-wing views when the Germans invade.
Fifteen-year-old Themis comes from a family divided by these political differences. The Nazi occupation deepens the fault-lines between those she loves just as it reduces Greece to destitution. She watches friends die in the ensuing famine and is moved to commit acts of resistance.
In the civil war that follows the end of the occupation, Themis joins the Communist army, where she experiences the extremes of love and hatred and the paradoxes presented by a war in which Greek fights Greek.
Eventually imprisoned on the infamous islands of exile, Makronisos and then Trikeri, Themis encounters another prisoner whose life will entwine with her own in ways neither can foresee. And finds she must weigh her principles against her desire to escape and live.
As she looks back on her life, Themis realises how tightly the personal and political can become entangled. While some wounds heal, others deepen.
Many thanks to Headline via NetGalley for my copy of Those Who Are Loved to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
It's been quite a number of years since I have read a book by Victoria Hislop and I think it's because I didn't read raving reviews of her last two books but I wanted to try this new book and I was so glad I did. Now having finished her new book -Those Who Are Loved - I am reminded just how good an author she is. This book is an epic read that delves into the turbulent, tragic and difficult history of Greece.
I feel like I have been through a riveting, interesting and thought provoking history lesson. One where I barely left my Kindle out of my hands so caught up was I in the story. Yes at times it is a difficult read due to the grim and oppressive situations our main character finds herself in but it is also a very important, eye opening read. I had no idea as to the history of Greece, a country the author clearly has such a deep affection for given the care and sensitivity shown to the recollection of its past events but now I feel as if I have such a deep understanding of the fight for justice so many people endured for so long. I felt as if I was submerged into a time that was dangerous, threatening and destructive and the span of the novel although very wide ranging was needed in order to tell the incredible story that unfolded before my eyes.
Our main character Themis Stavridis is now in her 90's and as her family leave the celebration for her birthday, her young granddaughter and grandson remain and she decides to give them a gift. This gift is the story of her life and we follow her from 1930 right up until 2016 as she recollects a life filled with passion, fervour, danger, heartbreak but also loyalty to the cause she so strongly believes in. There were some fleeting moments where I questioned was the book too long? Was there too much detail? But when I read that final page I realised that every aspect of the story no matter how small or big was essential and the picture built up of a remarkable woman who sacrificed so much for the cause she so fervently believed in was all necessary to ensure a fascinating story was told in order to make this book the stunning read that it was.
We are introduced to Themis and her three siblings, Margarita, Panos and Thanasis, as their world is turned upside down. Their house literally crumbles and they are sent to life with their grandmother Kyria Koralis. Their father is away at sea and their mother becomes indefinitely ill. Kyria Koralis will go on to be the centre point of the family as does the apartment she lives in. Over the course of many years as we follow the family she becomes the matriarch their mother could never be. She is there at every juncture and as the bad times more often than not outweigh the good she supports her grandchildren.
As the children grow older and the political and economic fortunes of the country go back and forth, a division emerges within the family with Themis and Panos on one side and Thanasis and Margarita on another. Their lives are in constant danger and as the country splits itself in two between the communists and their wish for democracy and liberation and those who wish for the King and a government to rule the factions between the siblings widen ever deeper. From the Nazi occupation during World War Two onwards we see various changes in power and with this the fortunes of the family change too. People can be killed for their beliefs but throughout all this Themis is a stand-out character who once she has formed opinions she never ever sways from this no matter how tough things get although there is so much sent to test her. Yes she questions herself but she remains solid in her viewpoint.
Themis was an incredible character who believed she knew what was best for her country and would do anything to help achieve this .Panos held the same views but I felt Margarita and Thanasis were too enshrined in the wrong way of thinking and they seemed to follow the crowd when it came to mass opinions. Following the departure of the Germans, Greece experienced its own civil war and to be honest I had no clue about any of this and at this stage the story could have felt like I was reading a boring history book that I was being made to study for an exam. Thankfully this wasn't the case at all and instead the book began to take me on an ever more vivid and interesting journey than it had up until that point. The author never shied away from the hardships endured by a family that we follow for so many years that become bitterly divided by politics. They are but a small cog in the wheel but are determined to play their part. Themis knows she cannot stand by as what she has witnessed should never have happened. The loss of a close friend will always be the inspiration that spurs her on in the fight for justice and equality and no matter how far away that goal may seem she constantly strives to reach it.
Perhaps the most powerful and shocking scenes were those when Themis leaves the family home to enlist with the communists in order to fight. She has yearned for liberation for so long and has had enough of repression. She believes people cannot struggle on the way they have and that if she can play any part at all in achieving the long term goal than she will do so. Not only does the conflict in Greece change the family but also do the ravages of time and this is highlighted when Themis is captured. The chapters set during this time were difficult to read and to be honest if I really took the time to sit and observe everything that was befalling her I might have had to stop reading for quite some time. Everything she endured was horrific and to think it really did happen to so many people not that long ago is unbelievable and hard to swallow. But throughout it all Themis is a stalwart, never swaying from her beliefs or convictions. The thuggery, torture, deprivation and brutality she witnessed and endured would have made anyone else sway in their opinions but she held strong. The pain from everyone involved in this story just bounced off the pages right into the heart and mind of this reader and I am sure the same will be said by anyone who picks up this book. I felt I was there right along side Themis as she partakes in a test of endurance that would either shatter her or make her. When she makes the ultimate decision I did not judge her for it because circumstances had changed and she knew she would wrestle with this choice for the remainder of her life.
I enjoyed how the latter half of the book took on a different tone and though initially I thought this seems like I am reading a separate story I then realised how cleverly everything was being woven together. The political situation in Greece played out amidst a family saga and it turned into an utter triumph of a novel for the author. Themis herself experiences many internal and external conflicts as she questions why am I doing this but I loved seeing the inner strength emerge from her core. She placed herself in danger numerous times over and the one promise she made to someone who did something so loyal for her would never ever be broken. As the family dynamics changed over the many years this story encapsulates it demonstrated how the past will always have a bearing on the present and that people can mould, adapt and change but when one makes the ultimate sacrifice for what they truly believe is right they must live with those choices and their repercussions.
Those Who Are Loved was a brilliant read written with such tenderness, care and respect for the subject matter and the people of Greece. Their history deserves to be told and Victoria Hislop has done so with tact and balance as she showed how the schism between right and left deepened and widened and polarised families, neighbourhoods and cities. When Themis finishes recalling her story just as her two grandchildren sit back and attempt to absorb and comprehend everything they have heard I did the same. It was almost like I let go of the breath I had been holding for much of the story. My eyes had been opened to a Greece I never knew existed and the image we all have of a sun filled country belies its oppressive and destructive past.
I wouldn't say this is a book that is enjoyable simply because of the subject matter, and really this is not the correct word to use, but it certainly is a book that you must read. In the brief end notes there is an explanation behind the name Themis - in Greek mythology it meant fairness and natural law and the symbol was the scales of justice. A more apt name could not have been chosen for an incredible character who will remain with you long after you have read the final page. In my mind, Those Who Are Loved is a superb return to form for Victoria Hislop and long may it continue.