Golden Hayfields and Wildflowers

Margarita Liberaki, trans. Karen Van Dyck, Three Summers

Viking, 272pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780241475065

reviewed by Lamorna Ash

Until today, I did not believe in crying over books. I had heard reports of such occurrences, sure, but I remained sceptical of their validity. I didn’t believe the way people tend to read (in short bursts, mostly) could produce spontaneous tears. Crying in films seemed more plausible. In a dark cinema, especially, you are held captive by the narrative’s emotional arc, unable to look away, to split its duration into fragments so as to minimise its impact on the heart. But, then, moments ago — or it was when I first put down this sentence — I was lingering over the final sentences of a novel, so overwhelmed by the rush of feelings I was experiencing that I could not hold back the tears.

I’d read this particular novel fast — almost without break since, once again, I was behind on my reviewing schedule — so that could be a contributing factor. But I also don’t think it would be a totally satisfactory explanation. Even if I’d wandered through this book slowly, a chapter a week, say, I am not sure I could have left behind its emotional world entirely between stints. The book that did this to me was Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki, first published in Greece, 1946, and now translated by Karen Van Dyck as part of the Penguin European Writers Series.

I wish it were enough to say it made me cry. If this were something as intimate as a text message, and not a review, I think read this, it made me cry would be ample demonstration of its power. But that might leave you feeling hard done by. Instead, I want to take a different approach to reviewing than I would usually, one that might allow me to get to the heart of things more quickly and so reproduce more accurately the less reasonable, reasoned emotions this novel provoked in me.

Of the plot, all you need to know is this. It follows three sisters over three consecutive summers. It’s set in the Grecian countryside, all golden hayfields and wildflowers and mountains. Katarina, the youngest sister, is the frequently unreliable first-person narrator — though this does not preclude Liberaki from stepping out from her protagonist to explore in depth the complex inner landscapes of any of her many, other characters whenever she deems it necessary. That first summer, Katarina is 16, Infanta, the most beautiful and emotionally distant of the sisters, is eighteen, and Maria is almost 20. Their parents are divorced, and the girls live with their mother, Anna, their unmarried aunt, Theresa, and their grandfather.

Next, I want to suggest another novel that might act as an extended epigraph to Three Summers: L.P. Hartley’s 1950s classic, The Go Between. Like Leo Colston, Katarina gazes back at the summers of her youth from some distance, producing a mood equally nostalgic and elegiac. There, too, in The Go Between is the feeling of immense heat, the simultaneous sense of boredom and potentiality that proceeds months away from the structures of school. Most importantly, both novels portray the period during which young people lose what might be called a kind of worldly innocence and gain a deeper, often painful understanding of what it will mean to be an adult — the many traumas and pressures, deceits and heartbreaks that come with growing up.

Now, a biographical detail from novelist Polly Samson’s introduction to this edition. While writing Three Summers, her second novel, Margarita Liberaki was pregnant. A year later, she had divorced her husband and fled Greece for Paris, leaving her baby behind to be brought up by Liberaki’s own parents. But more on this momentarily.

An excerpt from one peripheral character’s diary goes like this: ‘Last night I had insomnia and I read a whole book. I read until the sun came up. The book said that woman has two different and contradictory desires, on the one hand to be free and on the other to submit.’ These two, central, opposing forces have both driven and will continue to drive the members of Katarina’s family apart long after the time period in which the novel is set.

Over the first summer, Maria, the eldest, is wilful and imperious. By the second, she is married. In the third she’s had her first child, to whom she gives her whole soul, which has the ulterior effect of making her husband increasingly resent his new wife — once fiery, now domesticated. Strange, silent Infanta seeks perfection in all aspects of her life. She is also horrified when anyone expresses intense affections for her. As such, she is ultimately freed from becoming subjugated by a man, but imprisoned by her own mind. Meanwhile, the contesting impulses of personal freedom and submission to another is most clearly manifested in the character of Katarina, who desires both intense love and to explore the world, who wants to see and feel everything available to her.

The model for the kind of female liberation Katarina increasingly longs for is ‘the Polish Grandmother’, Theresa and Anna’s mother, who ran off to Europe with a musician when her children were young and whom the family has not seen since. Though most of the family avoid mentioning the Polish Grandmother, her absence is the dark matter that turns the plot into a universe with substantial mass and meaning.

Irrespective of your views on the place of authorial biography in literary criticism, to know Liberaki constructed a character like the Polish Grandmother a year before she would make a similar flight from her own life seems to me, nevertheless, an extraordinary coherence. Though contemporary views of motherhood are perhaps more progressive than they were in the mid-20th century, women who place their personal freedom above the needs of their children are still demonised by society at large. This makes Three Summers all the more daring for the way it allowed Liberaki the space to imagine women who might reject their own families, while remaining nuanced, sensitive and sympathetic figures in their own right. As she grows up, Katarina begins to understand that, perhaps, for the Polish Grandmother, ‘far away was really here, not there’.

There is so much more to say. I want to tell you of the glorious, formally inventive style that moves so fluidly between tenses. I want to tell you of the acuity and profound understanding of the human psyche with which each character is rendered, whether they live in the novel for a page or several hundred. And of her use of metaphor and imagery, which is never over-embellished or over-explained, but instead perfectly, delicately suggests something vital about the character to which it relates.

Before I go, I want to offer some examples of these images. I could have chosen any number, but the four below each show something of the various characters’ relationships to love and how they approach living.

Aunt Theresa is unmarried. She spends her days painting ‘exactly what she sees, just as it is. She doesn’t miss a thing — not a leaf or a blade of grass, or even a distant cloud. Although when she paints the distant cloud she makes it look like it’s close up, and that ruins everything.’ A page later, Katarina describes how she found out Aunt Theresa was raped as a teenager. Only then, did she understand ‘why her trees on the canvas are separate from each other as if they belong to different landscapes.’

Though Infanta struggles to understand people, she has a clear, deep bond with her horse. The first time she rode Romeo, who had previously been considered too nervous or unstable to ever take a human rider,

The trees all blended together, the speed filling in the spaces in between them making them seem like one endless tree. Opening her lips, at last she let herself breathe.
When she came home that night we saw a whole new world reflected in her eyes.

And when their lonely mother plays the piano, it is ‘without passion, using the same restrained tone all through a piece. Something is missing from her playing, something that is connected to Theresa’s painting and the distant and close-up clouds.’

Finally, Katarina, who wishes she could describe the whole world and everything in it, seems the closest in character to her author. Whatever activity she is involved in, whether trying to paint or play with the kid goats in the meadow, she would suddenly

stop and stare into the distance trying to hear a sound. Something wasn’t enough in life, and something was too much, overflowing.
‘You’d like to live two lives,’ Maria once told me. ‘Your face gives you away.’
‘Not just two, but thousands, Maria, or one which could be a thousand.’

I sometimes wish I could end every review by writing: but it’s not the best book I’ve ever read. That would be ridiculous, I know. As they do with people, our relationships to books are liable to change, in response to one’s own fluctuating moods and needs. Right now, though, tears finally stoppered, I am going to write it anyway: this is the best book I’ve ever read.

Lamorna Ash is a journalist and the author of Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town. She lives in London.