Here (away from it all) is a 1969 novel by Polly Hope, originally published under the pseudonym Maryann Forrest. On an unnamed Greek island, often swamped with tourists, a small number of wealthy expatriates from around the world live a fairly carefree, relaxed lifestyle in one of the island’s villages. Our unnamed narrator lives with her husband, only referred to as “N,” and a number of her children. One lazy summer’s day the island is covered in a thick layer of dust, as if the fallout of some cataclysmic incident. Communication with the rest of the world ceases after this “Day of the Dusting” and leaving the island becomes hazardous. Left to their own devices, the precarious relationship between the native islanders and the foreigners stuck there begins to fall apart, as some of the old traditions come back into fashion and the expats realize they may never have been as welcome as they thought.
This is the novel that most caught my attention after reading The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. His take on it was rather compelling—describing it as Lord of the Flies with adults—and his tale of tracking down Hope especially memorable. It is thanks to him doing so that I can even read this book at all, as he encouraged her to republish it. Physical copies are once again difficult to find, but the Kindle edition was more than accessible, which is the copy I read. This is important because it would seem the book was not converted properly into an ebook, so there are numerous spelling errors and misplaced punctuation marks. I could tolerate it all well enough, but it always stuck out to me. I won’t knock the book itself for it, but it bears bringing up.
Though the writing style took some getting used to, I really enjoyed the early phases of the novel. Our narrator’s perspective is rather matter-of-fact and lackadaisical, especially the latter in the beginning, in a way that effectively captured the privileged lives these people lead. They’re not exactly awful, but their lives are so hedonistic in the beginning that it’s hard not to resent them, or see the seeds for the villagers’ resentment for that matter. It’s a fairly stream-of-consciousness sort of style too, the narrator often inserting little affectations as if she is dictating, despite being a written account of events by the character herself. Many terms relevant to the Greek language of the villagers were left unexplained as well, leaving me a little confused until I looked them up. I understand why the style wouldn’t be exposition-heavy, but I would have preferred it be a little more accessible somehow.
The cast of characters among the expats was surprisingly diverse for the time this book was written. The narrator is from England, and some others from other European nations and America, but one of the most notable of their number, Fellor, was a black French poet. A number of other characters were not straight as well, either homosexual or bisexual. There are a number of unfortunate stereotypes still present, which I attribute most to the time this book was written, but these negative traits are fairly balanced out too. While some gay characters are depicted as overly effeminate and foppish, others are more courageous and thoughtful; their sexuality is not made to define their character through stereotyping. Fellor was unfortunately characterized at times too, but he was also the fiercest and most daring among them, taking action while others were passive or stunned.
Despite their diversity, as a whole, the group of expats were unfortunately one-dimensional. By the end, pretty much all of them were a name attached to a job. Francesco is a sculptor, Bruce a gardener from Texas, Knut a Swedish strongman. They were all fairly interchangeable; oftentimes I was surprised to see a name make an appearance after not being mentioned for several chapters. When individuals do act, their behaviour is often rather frustrating. At first their naiveté in dealing with the increasingly corrupt police, mayor, and church figures is understandable, but after the first brutally heinous act is committed against them it became very frustrating whenever any degree of trust is every granted again.
This book is ultimately a lot more concerned with plot than character; the slow degradation of the expats’ lives as the islanders increasingly other them and exploit them in their cruel, re-emerging traditions. In this central respect it unfortunately rode the line of believability. The financial exploitation of the expats, taking all their valuables and property after money becomes meaningless and leaving them with nothing was fairly believable, but ultimately I was baffled by the fact that none of them even try to find a way to earn income in this new imposed system. I could infer that something would be done to further undermine their efforts, but the fact that none of them even try to barter work or services to earn their keep didn’t make sense to me, especially since many of them did seem to know the value of work and did not simply live off money earned by the work of others.
There was also a disconnection with the perspective of the villagers themselves, which could have made the situation a lot more nuanced. The expats only really deal with figures of authority, which makes a fair amount of sense, but if any of the villagers find the actions of their leaders grossly distasteful, we don’t get to hear of it. This becomes especially troubling because the motivations behind their dislike of the expats isn’t entirely clear. The source seems to be the fact that they’re foreign, yet the village leaders are dumping resources into building new infrastructure for tourism, with the unfounded belief that more people will be coming again. There may be a religious motivation, but we aren’t given a clear understanding of what that may be. We only know that they’re deemed disposable enough to use in barbaric rituals.
At the story’s most heinous moment, babies and handicapped people from among the expats are literally butchered in front of a hungry crowd to provide meat for a feast to the mayor’s birthday, while the rest of their number are made to watch the “festivities”. No villagers object to this, despite the fact that they themselves are not starving. The island is fairly self-sustaining, so being cut-off from the outside world does not harm their ability to produce food. It is only the expats, who are ostracized, that are made to live without. I had a lot of trouble accepting the idea that these people, who believe in some version of Christianity, wouldn’t draw a line at baby eating.
Furthermore, the expats don’t retaliate in meaningful ways to actions like these. I can understand some of them cowed into inaction, but the idea that literally none of them try to take up some of the arms in their possession to try and kill the village leaders, if nobody else, was frustrating. Fellor, our passionate poet, does in the first instance of horrible violence kill the perpetrator moments later, but as the story progresses he inexplicably departs from his senses and uses a moment where he should be taking actions against the villagers to instead lash out among his comrades. I’m not saying the circumstances that unfold are impossible, but there wasn’t enough nuance introduced to establish why they go the way that they do.
I’m being a little generous in my final scoring of this novel, because despite my criticism and frustrations with it once all was said and done, I was along for the macabre ride while reading it. Hope has a unique voice in her writing that lent a lot to the story, the matter-of-factness of the narrator’s perspective making the moments of visceral violence and abuse somehow hit harder. The increasingly brutal treatment of the expats does happen rather gradually too, lending a natural sense to what unfolds. I just wish the perspective wasn’t so limited, as we do see developments that the narrator herself does not witness, so it is not strictly tied to what she herself experiences. As a short excursion into societal degradation it’s not without value, but I would love to see this story given a deeper, nuanced look at the characters and society that shaped how everything went down.
My Rating: 3 out of 5