Translated by Karen Van Dyck
Review by Karen Langley
Coming of age stories are a perennial favourite in both classic and modern literature; and although much past writing has focused on male rites of passage, the 20th century and onwards has seen women take the fore in this type of novel. I Capture the Castle, for example, is the quintessential story of a young girl growing up, and a recently reissued Greek classic has garnered comparisons with that work. However, Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki has a charm and poignancy all of its own, as well as tackling female sexuality head on, and it deserves appreciation in its own right.
First published in 1946, Liberaki’s work is one of Greece’s favourite books of all time, and is still taught in her schools. Set in the countryside near Athens before the Second World War, it tells the story of three sisters. Maria is the eldest, a sensuous and flirtatious girl who draws the attentions of all the local boys. Then there is the middle daughter, Infanta, stunningly beautiful but remote, more interested in her horse and her embroidery than the many males who admire her from afar. The youngest is Katerina, who is narrator for much of the book; a difficult, rebellious girl, she perhaps most strongly of the three signals potential changes which might be on the horizon for women in Greece.
The girls live in a ramshackle house with their divorced mother, grandfather and Aunt Theresa. The first section opens with the sisters buying straw hats, each of which might be said to represent their individual characters (cherries, forget-me-nots and poppies from oldest to youngest). The girls are close, lying together in the hayfields and exchanging secrets. However, over the course of the three summers of the title, the sisters will grow up and undergo many changes, in effect defining their paths through life.
As I mentioned, Katerina is the main narrator for the book, and she’s a complex and nuanced character. The youngest at the start of the story, she has a partial awareness of the adult world, but her early viewpoint is filtered through a young girl’s eyes. Maria, however, is ripe for adulthood, and her emotions and need for love are strongly defined. Infanta is very, very different from her elder sister; with her, all emotions are held inside, and her affections are poured into her riding and her sewing, under the watchful eye of her Aunt Theresa.
As the story goes on, Maria juggles her lovers and tries to decide where her affections lie; Infanta struggles with her inability to feel real emotions; and Katerina is haunted by a family mystery which is a thread running through the book. The girls have a missing grandparent, known as the ‘Polish Grandmother’; the latter is never spoken of, or only in hushed tones, but she abandoned her husband and two daughters when the latter were very young. As Katerina notes wryly:
I guess poor Grandfather kept the farm as consolation. He had lost Grandmother when Mother and Aunt Theresa were only five and seven. Death did not take her. She left of her own accord with a musician who was passing through Athens on a concert tour.
Katerina is obsessed by her Polish Grandmother, wondering what became of her when she ran off for a less enclosed life than was available in Greece. Little does she know what will be revealed as time progresses.
So Maria makes her choice of husband; Infanta appears to reject love; and new characters are introduced, such as the astronomer David, who will have a dramatic effect on Katerina’s life. David is a complicated man; slightly older than Katerina, he appears to be playing her off against Mrs. Parigori, a married and self-obsessed local woman. The sisters visit their father in Athens, attend a dance, children are born, relationships are fractured, and secrets finally revealed. The ending is in some ways open-ended, which is satisfying; leaving more than one possibility open to some of the sisters seems to me the best option.
Three Summers is a wonderful book to read on so many levels; as a portrait of Greek life of the period, it’s exemplary, capturing the hot dry summers, the landscape, the people and their traditions. This is very much a traditional country, with religion strongly at the centre of daily life, and so the book itself must have been quite groundbreaking at the time of its publication. The narrative is very much about the lives of women of all ages, and the glimpse it gives into how it was to be female in the Greece of the time is invaluable.
As well as discussing the inner and emotional lives of women, the book is also surprisingly frank about sex and sensuality, with a scene of a first sexual encounter rendered in sensitive yet erotic tones. The more difficult subjects are not glossed over – abortion gets a mention – and the exploration of the girls’ mood swings as they grow up is telling (particularly in the case of Katerina); and yet there’s still the sense that they live in quite an idyllic setting. As the girls grow, however, and grow apart, there’s a bittersweet tang to the narrative as they know their lives will never be the same again.
In many ways, the three sisters are probably intended to represent the options open to women; Maria’s more traditional family needs, Infanta’s nun-like pursuit of her art and her horse, and Katerina’s striving for something new and different. I was particularly interested in Infanta’s relationship to her Aunt Theresa; the latter is portrayed as an old spinster family member who paints and has an almost poisonous control over her niece, trying to pull her away from the attractions of men and instead get her to perfect herself as some kind of artist. At one point, it’s revealed that an incident when she was young changed the course of her life completely, and that presumably is meant to explain her attitude. However, a different viewpoint would be of someone who is rejecting the stereotypes, following art rather than the traditional route; and that this is something which should be applauded rather than mocked. I wasn’t quite sure how the author intended the reader to take this element, but I did feel some sympathy with Theresa and slightly cross with the author for stereotyping the unmarried artistic woman!
This minor grumble aside, Three Summers is an atmospheric and compelling read. The writing is often unconventional, as Liberaki’s focus switches between different characters’ viewpoints alongside journal extracts; this gives a slightly wider outlook than simply seeing everything filtered through Katerina’s eyes and was a welcome element of experimentation.
Three Summers was translated in 1995 by Karen Van Dyck, and was published recently in the USA by The New York Review of Books. This edition is part of the Penguin European Writers series, which was launched in 2018; it comes with an introduction by Polly Samson and is a worthy addition to the imprint. Evocative, atmospheric and beautifully written, it captures a snapshot of three pivotal summers for Maria, Infanta and Katerina; they’re an unforgettable trio of sisters and the book is a marvellous picture of a world long gone.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and finds bookish travel is a reasonable substitute for the real thing at the moment…
Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers (Penguin Books, 2021). 978-0241475065 249pp., paperback.
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