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The past is another country.

January 5, 2012

This beautifully written novel is a contemplative exploration of childhood and fatherhood set in 1970s suburban Melbourne. John Charalambous’s third book, Two Greeks, evokes the character-shaping experience of a young Greek-Australian boy in the landmark year that his mother leaves his father.

In the years before the blessed advent of no-fault divorce laws, Andy and his family—acerbic older sister Angela and downtrodden mother Carol—live in the shadow of his domineering Cypriot father, Harry Stylianou, a man whose grand claims and ambitions far exceed his reality. But Harry’s suburban dominion is about to crumble: while his wife waits for the divorce laws to change so she can leave him with minimal legal fuss, his son forms a gentle bond with the old Greek man next door, and his daughter embarks on open teenage rebellion.

Two Greeks is told from Andy’s point of view, his dreamy ten-year-old perspective channelled through the voice of his adult self. The novel opens at Harry’s funeral in 2010, when Andy and his mother and sister recreate their shared history, creating ‘a collaboration that covers a jagged hole.’ With poignancy and humour, Andy’s retelling reveals a gradual understanding of his difficult father’s past.

In 1974, as his mother and sister cope with Harry in their own ways, young Andy inadvertently chooses the path of least resistance. When the Stylianous discover that a fellow Greek has moved into the house behind theirs, their new neighbour acquires a strange mystique—by ‘stubbornly failing to materialise,’ he piques everyone’s curiousity. Andy is disappointed to discover that Mr Voreadis is an old man, having imagined that the ‘great Greek wrestler Spiros Arion had retired prematurely to the suburbs.’

After he’s embarrassingly discovered spying on Mr Voreadis from the prickly confines of a hedge, Andy agrees to start walking the old man’s dog, George. What begins as a financial arrangement—Andy dutifully saves each dollar-per-walk so he can buy a record player—evolves into a friendship of sorts, and Andy is soon listening to Mr Voreadis’s stories with growing interest: ‘his friend Chris was a spy. He got shot. By association, Mr Voreadis becomes more illustrious. It’s possible to believe he lived a dangerous life.’

Although he feigns understanding when Mr Voreadis begins telling him about Greek history and politics, Andy’s bewilderment soon leads to curiosity about his father’s background, and his own Greek heritage. At the same time, the Turks invade Cyprus—‘I think it an extraordinary coincidence of timing, my father’s island exploding the moment I pay attention.’

Charalambous evokes the peculiar experience of growing up between two cultures with a wonderful lightness of touch. Andy remembers himself as ‘such a naïve kid, constantly picking away at the Greek lock in the belief that I can steal what I like and reject the rest.’ As Mr Voreadis begins to teach him Greek, Andy feels on the brink of forming a connection with Harry.

But Two Greeks isn’t just the story of Andy and his father. Charalambous captures the Stylianou family unit—a disparate gathering of four very different souls, awkwardly orbiting one another as they each struggle to find their place—with astuteness and sensitivity.

Carol’s transformation from overweight housewife to self-determined divorcee is particularly poignant. Narrating his recollections directly to his mother, Andy illuminates the significant moments in her life as aptly as he does his own. After sixteen years of thankless capitulation in the face of Harry’s moods, his mother’s ‘resentments wriggle like worms.’ Once she discovers that the divorce laws are set to change, Carol loses weight and dances as she hangs out the washing, readying herself to start a new life even as she remains beset by doubt. ‘You can’t be sure that you will ever leave,’ Andy writes of his mother. ‘Which makes you dismissive of your hopeful moods, when you’re seduced by the promise of rational action, when you tell yourself you’re waiting for the law to click over. What a con.’

But the family dynamic will inevitably shift, and Andy’s difficulty lies in how he reconciles his tenuous new understanding of his father with the love he’s always had for his mother.

This is a thoughtful and well-crafted coming-of-age tale that evokes the emotional complexity of family relations. For all his faults, Andy comes to recognise that Harry is no tyrant, but simply a man displaced, lacking the means and opportunity to build a better life—‘if only he’d stayed put in his little mountain village he might have been happy.’

It’s one thing to revisit the past, but another to become reconciled to it. ‘We’re not so peculiar and misbegotten,’ Andy reflects. ‘These faults are washed clean in the Hellenic sea.’

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