Artemis’ mother, Nysa, was one of the ‘Greek Girls’ who arrived in Wellington in the 1960s to provide domestic staff for hotels and hospitals. Many years later she is finally going to return to Greece, and Artemis is going to fly over from Melbourne to take care of the house in her absence. Artemis herself had fled to Melbourne to escape an ‘arranged marriage’ and has ended up an ‘other woman’ in a relationship with her history Professor. Artemis is looking forward to time out and a chance to get some perspective on her relationship – but when she arrives Nysa has passed away; Artemis travels to Greece in her place and finds herself amidst a family and a history that explains a lot about her mother and gives her a new perspective on herself.
Daughters of Messene is an engaging book, and you do get a real feel of being elsewhere amongst people with difficult and shared experiences. I would have liked more content about the classical and turbulent more recent past amongst the remnants of which Artemis finds herself. And although I liked Artemis I found it hard to accept her as a PHD level History student. I also found that the ‘po po po’, ‘tsk tsk tsk’, and repetition of Greek aphorisms moved from creating atmosphere to just a bit annoying.
What I really liked about this novel was the filament that separates those people who give in in times of terror for the sake of their families – collaborating to be able to keep farming to feed their families, recanting to be allowed to be reunited with their children – and those who sing through torture and never give up. “There are three sides to every story” – and courage is found in many guises.
The New Zealand involvement in both the Greek and Turkish conflicts, and the various waves of migrations to New Zealand from Greece also makes Artemis’ history relevant to all of us.