My Last Lament is the story of Aliki, an old woman from a remote village in north-eastern Greece.
Having spent her life chanting dirge poems during wakes, the professional lamenter - the last of her kind in her village - composes one last "lament", this time for herself.
This compassionate, masterfully woven narrative chronicles Aliki's journey of love and loss against the backdrop of civil war in the aftermath of World War II during her teenage years.
The premise of this last lament: An American woman hoping to produce original research on Mediterranean ethnography has asked Aliki to record her dirge poems using a voice recorder and cassette tapes.
MY LAST LAMENT
By James William Brown
Paperback/339 pages/ $29.91/Books Kinokuniya
Aliki consents, in her own way, and this novel, whose chapters are "cassette sides", is the result. The few dirge poems scattered throughout the book's 300 pages serve as spools around which she winds the yarn of her life story.
Laments, she explains, "are surrounded by life, 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".
Shadows of Homer and classical Greek tragedians loom over the text.
Aliki and her love interest, Stelios, read the Iliad, perform shadow puppetry and witness great tragedy. As far as Greek-inspired works go, this is the full monty, with madness, exile and even a whiff of incest.
While literary scholars could have a field day unpicking the genealogical threads of Brown's work, the writing hardly seems schematic or contrived. The prose is deceptively simple, its borrowed motifs altered with a twist and spun together seamlessly.
Brown's novel raises some provoking questions about the ethics of storytelling.
Does retelling someone else's story give it a new lease of life or do we inflict a kind of violence on the original when we shape it according to our own ends?
Aliki is careful to avoid sentimentality, pausing whenever her emotions get too overwhelming. On the other hand, the American researcher deconstructs Greek culture through a kind of clinical prism - "death is the passage from the inside to the outside".
Partly because of the careful build-up earlier, the story's anagnorisis or resolution feels particularly well-earned. But it is not a simple revelation; crucial details are suspended and its truth hinges on who we decide to believe.
Brown's book is well-researched and even comes with a bibliography. But there are times when he seems to be treading too carefully. While there are many tender moments, there was none that gripped me on a visceral level. Readers might well find themselves longing for something a bit more imaginative or daring.
Also, it is hard to reconcile the youthful register of the narrative with the voice of the wrinkled crone narrating it. This results in a kind of emotional estrangement - akin to that when you read a classical Greek drama that has been translated into modern prose.
Whether by accident or sleight of hand, My Last Lament exemplifies this sense of loss in translation.
The prose is elegant but it does not so much strike the heart with vivid imagery, as wash over its readers like the waters of Lethe. Not, alas, the stuff memorable laments are made of.
•If you liked this book, read: Blood Dance (Harcourt, $17.60 plus shipping, Amazon.com), Brown's debut novel about a small Greek island in the 1930s to which a young woman goes to work as an archaeologist.