This one landed on my desk courtesy of a ‘Read Now’ offer from publisher, John Murray Press and NetGalley, so my thanks to both parties for giving me the opportunity to spread the word and share my thoughts.
THE MAKING OF MRS. PETRAKIS
Cyprus in the run up to the civil war of the 1970s… the threat of it hangs in the atmosphere like a fine mist. A terrible thing, war. Against this backdrop of war and violence, the island’s inhabitants make the best they can of their lives, building friendships, falling in love, having children, watching people die, making mistakes.
Maria Petrakis, however, flees a brutal marriage on the island where she has always lived for London and a new start. She opens a bakery on Green Lanes in Harringay – the centre of the small Greek Cypriot community whose residents have settled there to escape the war and start again. Here she comes into her own as she heals and atones through the kneading of bread and the selling of shamali cakes and cinnamon pastries to her customers.
There are glimpses of the lives of her neighbours, friends and customers as they buy their bread and cakes. There’s Mrs Koutsouli, whose heart was broken when her handsome son married a xeni, an English woman with fish-eyes and yellow hair. There’s Mrs Pantelis, driven half-mad with the grief of losing her son, Nico, in the war. And there’s Mrs Vasili who claims to be related to Nana Mouskouri and grows her hair upwards so she can feel closer to God. Finally, there’s Elena, Maria Petrakis’ daughter-in-law, who has been suffering with the blackness since having a baby, and whom nobody knows quite how to help.
The Making Of Mrs Petrakis is a story about the limited choices women sometimes find themselves confronting. It’s a story about repression and mental illness and the devastation it can wreak on lives. But above all, it is a story of motherhood and love and of healing through the humble act of baking.
Born in London in 1978, Mary Karras is the daughter of Greek Cypriot emigres.
Her parents separately fled Cyprus in the sixties and seventies, seeking a new life free of the turbulent politics of their native island, settling in north London where they met and married.
As a child, Mary and her sisters would visit their grandparents in Harringay, spending time in the Greek Cypriot grocery shops and bakeries that flourished on Green Lanes at that time.
Growing up, she developed a keen interest in the concepts of community, cultural dissonance, language and belonging, leading her to pursue a degree in English Literature and Language at King’s College London.
She lives in north London, and Mrs Petrakis is her debut novel.
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“The making of Mrs Petrakis is peppered with the Greek words and phrases which defined my childhood. I could almost hear them as I typed. The names of the pastries and sweets and delicious dishes my sisters and I grew up relishing. Each connoting something tantalisingly rich and flavoursome. I wanted to share them as they sounded to me, these words, to bring them to life through writing and consequently lend a layer of authenticity to the speech and actions of the characters”
It’s growing late when she walks into the police station and outside, the red rays of the retreating sun streak the sky like flames. She’s distraught. The policeman behind the glass looks up at her as she makes her way towards him. Her hands are shaking and she grips the counter to steady herself. Her whispered voice is filled with urgency and panic.
Please. I’ve lost my son.
The policeman sits blot upright, galvanised by the information. He’s caught off guard. He wasn’t envisaging. Not this evening.
Your son? When did you last see him?
She is small and pale and her large dark eyes are wide and watery. Two muddied pools. She’s disorientated. A shadow of a lost self. She hugs her clothes tightly around her chest and disappears into her embrace.
This morning. He went out to play football in the schoolyard with his friend and he didn’t come home.
The policeman grabs a pen, opens his notebook.
Can I take some details? How old is he?
Eight? And what’s his name?
The woman hesitates. Her breath mists the glass in front of the policeman’s face and she raises her finger hesitantly and draws five letters in it.
“Throughout the first six month’s of the baby’s life, Elena is overcome with a gloom so intense that it takes all her willpower not to be swallowed up by it entirely. All the colour, it seems, has drained out of the world and swirled down a long, dark hole along with all the joy. Where once there were yellows and golds to admire, now there is only grey. So deep is the sorrow that afflicts her soul that she has no energy left to love the poor child who lies in her cot for hours cooing and gurgling and reaching up for her feet, while Elena paces anxiously around her bed and wishes she would vanish into thin air like all the other things which once made her happy”
“The narrower a man’s mind, he used to say, the bigger his proclamations”
“Costa has to admit that as the years go by, his love for his wife grows but his understanding of her diminishes”
“News travels fast in a small community and scandal practically flies”
“Life was tough and some people were just not cut out to make the journey”
“There is something very life affirming about standing at a graveside on a brisk, chilly morning, knowing that you are not going into the carefully prepared hole, but allowed to pick up where you left off afterwards. To go home and read a book or drink tea. Perhaps that’s why people have wakes, she thinks. Not to toast the dearly departed but to celebrate their own, brief, stay of execution”
“She realises in that moment that she hates him and it scares her, makes her shudder. The apathy she can live with. You can coexist with apathy. You can make apathy a cup of tea and exchange pleasantries with it. Hate has no boundaries and when you truly hate another person, anything is possible”
“If there’s one thing she has learned over the years it’s to stop looking for answers in a world where there are only questions”
“She’d thought afterwards how easy it was to become lost in the moment and to pretend that you weren’t, until one day, it wasn’t possible to pretend any more and everyone knew you were lost except you”
“One family, two countries”
OMG! Where would I be without my faithful pack of tissues. At times I laughed until I cried, at others I cried until I laughed, but always tears were involved, as my emotions were pulled first one way and then the other.
From my own personal perspective, it seems to me that there were in fact two families and two countries at the beating heart of this sprawling, generational saga. That the Petrakis family had the loudest voice, is without question. However, notwithstanding that Elena does eventually marry into the Petrakis family; she, her sister Valentina and their mother Lenou, played such a pivotal role in shaping much of the early Cyprus based narrative and dialogue, that without them things just wouldn’t have been the same.
The story encompasses two countries and timelines. I visited a Cyprus, which in the 1960s/70s, is fast heading towards a Civil War between Greece and Turkey, in which there can be no winners. Fast forward to the 1980s/90s, where, as a result of the cultural dissonance, there has been an exodus of many of the Cypriot population, to the much calmer environs of London, where they are fast establishing a new, small and close-knit community of their own, in the Harringay, Greens Lane area in the Borough of Haringey. At first, despite the short and well signposted chapters, I did find the timeline switches back and forth, a little disjointed and I confess to ending up by drawing my own little chart, so that I could track events more easily. However, it didn’t take too long to get into the swing of things and sort out the characters and then I witnessed the two timelines converging beautifully, to present a well structured, fluent and seamless storyline, where events of the past have such a huge influence over the present.
Skilled in the imagery of words, there was a lovely perceptive visual depth and range to Mary’s writing. The assured, observational and descriptive narrative, together with some excellent conversational dialogue, offered a real sense of time and place, as befitted her own parents Cypriot heritage and hence, much of the inspiration for the story. As my own husband was in the military at the time of the Cypriot troubles, many of the sights and sounds resonated deeply with me and took me on a really personal trip down memory lane.
Life in Cyprus was harsh and difficult for both families, so England was definitely the land of opportunity and new beginnings for them, as war became an inevitable outcome for this divided country. Without giving away too many spoilers, in what, at the time, was a predominantly male led, arranged marriage society, Maria and Costa endured Mickali’s brutal form of physical and mental domestic abuse, for many years, with stoicism and in silence. Even the tragic loss of a beloved daughter doesn’t unlock Michali’s heart of stone, but only serves to strengthen his resolve to make a grief stricken Maria pay for all the ills in his personal world of misfortune. When a way out is offered, Maria has to make the ultimate choice and pay a terrible personal cost, with a secret she can never reveal and which she takes to her grave.
When Lenou’s husband and soulmate is taken from her and her girls, she becomes very bitter and twisted, venting her anger, sorrow and distress on her daughters in both terrible physical and mental abuse, which will haunt them for the rest of their lives. For Valentina, being exiled to London in disgrace, finding history repeating itself and being forced to make a life-changing decision she will ultimately find it impossible to live with, has far-reaching and devastating consequences for her sister Elena, who is herself now living in London and married to Maria’s son, Costa. With an already fragile mind, Elena believes herself to be personally responsible for all the ills and misfortunes of both her own and Costa’s family. This, together with her own battle with undiagnosed PND, following the births of her two daughters, neither of which she is truly able to bond with, eventually finds Elena succumbing to a spell in an institution.
Much of the recent background story focusses on Maria’s skills as a traditional Cypriot baker, which is how she makes a living when she arrives in London, with her son Costa. Fortunate enough to establish her own high street business, the pages of the book are replete with the names and descriptions of some divine sounding dishes and pastries, which I have to say, did rather side-track me and kept Google busy for many hours. It wasn’t until I had finished reading my Kindle edition of the book, that I discovered the glossary at the end, where any Cypriot words and phrases used in the story, were defined and explained. Possibly there might have been scope for this to have been mentioned at the beginning of the book, so that readers could mark the relevant glossary pages. Although for me personally, I found it just as easy to switch between Kindle and computer, where my search page was open and at the ready, as were paper and pen to jot down some of the more mouth-watering recipes.
Fast forward to London 2007 and this beautiful story has once again evolved and is now focussed on the bonds of family, about learning to survive, and ultimately learning and growing from shared experiences. For Maria, the London bakery has always been her saviour in times of stress and trouble, as she can lose herself totally in her artistic ability to produce such stunning delicacies. Perhaps she almost left it too late in realising its healing potential, although for the short time he was with her before his PTSD, following his stint in a Cypriot army at war, claimed his life, her assistant, Maki would always be grateful for Maria’s large and gentle heart. Whether Elena would have benefitted from the restorative powers of Petrakis Bakery at an earlier time is a debatable point, however, as Maria’s parting gift to the next generation of the Petrakis family, Elena and Costa look set to call the business their own, to treat it with the reverence and love it deserves and just maybe, in return, it will be the saving of some badly damaged hearts and minds. Which means that after so many years of toil and struggle, safe in the knowledge that she has raised a son to be proud of, to carry on the family name, the ‘Mighty Maria Petrakis’ can finally find peace and solace, although without ever having truly experienced for herself the enduring love and devotion between two people, which she so richly deserved.
The making Of Mrs Petrakis was a wonderfully rendered, mature work of cultural and societal fiction, compassionately written from the heart, unique and unconventional, often disturbing, brutally and heartbreakingly honest, yet desperately compelling, powerful and completely immersive. Multi-layered, slowly unfolding and evolving, the story is evocative, intensely textured, rich in atmosphere and detail, and totally and utterly emotionally draining.
All the women in this book have their own tragic story to tell and it is clear that their strengths and weaknesses have been shaped by their past, often traumatic, experiences. Mary gave them their own space and afforded them a strong voice with which to tell their story. They were all pieces of a complex jigsaw of human emotions, raw and passionate, vulnerable and often searching for a sense of belonging. However they were always genuine and believable, addictive, worth investing in and identifying with.
Equally worth investing in, was the stalwart figure of Costa. A true reflection of Maria’s loving influence, who gains surprising magnitude, not in his looks or deeds, but by the sheer power of his love and devotion to his family, which sets him apart from many of his fellow Cypriot male counterparts. His refusal to abandon Elena when she is most in need of his support and the stability he is hoping to provide for her as she readjusts to life back out in society, bonding with her daughters and setting their family life back on course, is to be commended.
An excellent debut novel from an accomplished and polished author. I hope there are plenty more storylines in Mary’s portfolio, just waiting to be developed.
What makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination and stimulate my senses. I recommend that you read this story for yourself and see where your journey leads you!
A complimentary download of this book, for review, was kindly made available by publisher, John Murray Press and NetGalley, as part of their ‘Read Now’ promotion.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars.
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