Alison Hatzantonis reviews Stamiata X by Effie Carr
by Effie Carr
Reviewed by ALISON HATZANTONIS
Years ago, when my first baby was a few months old, my half Greek, Australian born husband and I took Greek language lessons. In the depth of winter on cold cold nights I would leave my baby sound asleep in her Yia yia’s care and traipse across the city to a freezing concrete classroom to study the language with a Cretan lady called Crisanthe.
All these years later I still have only a rudimentary grasp of the basics of the Greek language. I can, though, introduce myself, ask how much something is and, thanks to practising on my two small children who could easily grasp any language, even two at once, I know all the Greek names of colours, body parts, fruit and a myriad of animals. But mainly, I remember the complexity of conjugation in the Greek language.
It was on common ground with the protagonist, Stamatia, that I found myself when I started reading this novel by Effie Carr. With a flash of recognition in the first few pages, the difficulty and rote learning that is needed to conjugate verbs were a jolt to my memories. Stamatia’s struggle with past tense and past participle terms becomes one of the underlying themes running through this novel. Her focus and interest in the history of the Greek people, the nation of Greece and the trauma passed down through generations were all expressed through the use of tense, past present and future, that she applies to her verbs.
At the centre of this multi-level and, at times, multi-perspective novel, is a young Greek Australian girl named Stamatia. In the Greek language, Stamatia means ‘stop’. A fact that is pointed out early with the birth of Stamatia and the response by her rigid and traditional father. Vasili wanted to stop any more female children being born to the family. This was an effective strategy apparently as two younger brothers are later born into the family after Stamatia. They live in Stanmore, in inner west Sydney around 1973 when the family (or rather Vasili) decide to return to Greece. This move coincides with the aftermath of the 1967 coup that occurred in Greece. On the 21st of April 1967 the military took control of the country and for the next seven years this dictatorship severely curtailed basic democratic freedoms.
Stamatia is a great dreamer. She asks a lot of questions. In fact, most of her musings are expressed in the form of questions. This style of narrative is fine when used immoderately and cautiously but the novel is overwhelmed by the rhetorical format. We, the reader, understand that she is a curious and intelligent girl, but the continuous phrasing of her thoughts as unanswered questions takes the reader out of the story. The narrative veers into memoir territory as the author employs an omnipotent narrative style. This leads to Stamatia thinking and pondering things that a young girl couldn’t possibly know or understand. The novel could be viewed as a collection of essays. Each chapter is not necessarily linear and there is a lack of plot progression to keep the story moving forward. Stamatia is very observational but tying together her musing is fractured and, in some instances, not clearly linking with the storyline at all. This fusion of genres could be part of the author’s strategy. To combine rhetoric, fiction and non-fiction historical reportage and blend it through the narrative is an unusual and different way to tell complex stories of displacement, migration and inter-generational trauma. I am not sure though, if I agree that this is a successful interpretation.
There are a few chapters that are not fully realised. The lack of backgrounding, characterisation and world building left what was actually on the page, a bit aimless. A curiously out of place chapter concerns Stamatia’s tutor from when she lived in Australia, Mr Lalas, and how he came to have a glass eye. This flashback to a minor character’s past seems to serve no purpose in the novel and merely provides a vehicle for Stamatia to compare him to a ‘cigarette-smoking cyclopes’.
In chapter 6 ‘Stamatia Aged 6’ there is a foray into existential angst with the arrival of her baby brother. Stamatia feels supplanted by this male child and even tries to kill the baby by holding a pillow over his face. Stamatia is maybe trying to express an existential feeling that she could live perfectly happily by being only one. She can imagine that she could lock herself in a cupboard, not go anywhere but because she has this inner life, she is perfectly content. The arrival of brothers and her upheaval and move to Greece throws her into great turmoil. But the portrayal of a 6-year-old suffering existential angst draws a long bow. In another chapter, one that focuses on Stamatia’s arrival at her new Greek high school, there is a slightly bizarre meandering into a simile of Darwinism and comparing students in her classroom with wild animals.
The novel’s foray into the past is cleverly explored. Through the use of grammar, an effective metaphor for the way the past is viewed by the Greek people is nicely done. ‘Stamatia knew that there were three tenses that described the past: the aorist, imperfect and the perfect. But there was only one future tense’(p31). Stamatia starts to understand how much the past, the country’s history, runs through the people and the places of Greece. Her tutor, Mr Lalas points this out to her before she even leaves Australia. ‘To be a Greek means to remember the past, Stamatia’ (p31) he tells her when she questions why there are numerous ways to conjugate the past.
The rhythm and excitement of the novel is at its best when the story is moving forward. The pace picks up when the narrative focuses on actual movement like the flight back to Greece. Upon landing at the airport, with the family’s re-migration journey back to their homeland just starting, there is a fascinating scene involving Stamatia, her suitcase of books and the military running the airport. The irony with which Stamatia views the soldiers proclaiming order in their processing of the passengers, is very amusing. ‘We will have order in Greece booms a voice through a loudspeaker. Stamatia thought this was strange. The Greeks she knew didn’t like too much order at all. Her observation was that Greeks liked disorder and a bit of chaos, the excitement of the spontaneous and elusive kefi, a Dionysian spirit which could only be captured in the moment’ (p50).
Thematically, Carr weaves together migration, Greek culture and religion, the collective trauma felt by the Greek people after being occupied in WW2, the impact of a dictatorial coup and the resulting restriction on freedoms, teenage existential angst and the difficulty of Greek grammar, to name a few.
The novel ends with a return to the beginning and the journey being embarked upon by Maria and Vasili to Australia, pregnant with their first child, a girl who will be called Stamatia. In the circle of life, of heritage, of ancestors and descendants, stopping is not possible.
Effie Carr was awarded a Commendation for Foreign Literature at the Book Awards organised by the Greek-Australian Cultural Association of Melbourne and Victoria for Stamatia X. The novel’s complexity of prose, dialogue, themes and imagery make for a confident debut for an emerging writer. I do await her next foray with anticipation.
ALISON HATZANTONIS is a country born and bred, Sydney writer currently undertaking a master’s degree at Macquarie University which she is hoping to finish soon. She completed her BA Degree majoring in Creative Writing in 2020. Twitter @a_hatz5