This week Demetra Angelis Foustanellas reviews the historical novel The Goodtime Girl (Cormorant Books 2012) by Tess Fragoulis. You may recall that Foustanellas is our Canadian in Greece. Tess Fragoulis also lived in Greece — for two years in her late teens. Born in Heraklion, Crete, Fragoulis and her family moved to Canada when she was one. Asked by e-mail if she travelled for research for her novel, she replied: “I did indeed go to Smyrna for my research. I needed to walk those streets. I did two years of research before that, however.”
Asked what she was working on now, she wrote: “I’m slowly working on another novel. Not set in Greece for a change (prior to The Goodtime Girl I published Ariadne’s Dream, which was also set in Greece). I’m superstitious about talking about works in progress, but the opening chapter of the new novel will be published in the anthology Montreal Noir by Akashic Books in 2017. I also have a collection of short stories called In Love with the Dead sitting around waiting for final edits on them.”
Her first novel, Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown Press 2001) was nominated for the 2003 IMPAC International Dublin Literary Prize, and received an honourable mention for the Books in Canada/Amazon First Novel Award. Before that Fragoulis published a collection of stories, Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp Press 1997), one of which was adapted for the television series “Bliss.” Fragoulis co-edited Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature (Vehicule 2004).
Why are we reviewing a novel that was published four years ago? Because it has parallels to what is going on in the world today: refugees in Greece. (And why not? Many older books have appeared in CWA because they are topical.) First, a little background. The port city of Smyrna in what was Anatolia and is now Turkey has a long history, controlled as it was by Greeks, Romans, and finally by the Ottomans. During a short period of Greek control of Smyrna from 1919-1922, Greece was at war with Turkey. Turkey won. Thousands of Greeks and Armenians resident in Smyrna were killed by the ensuing fire, known as the Great Fire or the Catastrophe of Smyrna. This is how a Greek heroine became a refugee in Piraeus, Greece. I’ll let our reviewer Demetra Angelis Foustanellas take it from here. -DM
Review of The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis, (Cormorant Books, 2012), 322 pages.
Reviewed by Demetra Angelis Foustanellas
The heroine of Tess Fragoulis’s The Goodtime Girl is Kivelli, who was born into a privileged Greek family in Smyrna. Suddenly she finds herself alone, a migrant without family, home or money, stranded in the darkest corners of Pireaus. It is 1922, the year of the Catastrophe, the year Smyrna was destroyed, and non-Turkish families were expelled.
By describing the Great Fire of Smyrna through the eyes of the young Kivelli, Fragoulis conveys to the reader not only the fear, pain and devastation of losing family, friends and possessions, but also the will to survive against such loss.
Kyria Effie, a local brothel owner, selects Kivelli from a crowd of homeless refugees in Pireaus. She knew where to find her new recruits: desperate females accepting measly accommodation in exchange for sex.
The Anatolian Pearl, as Kivelli is referred to, is a title she flaunted proudly in a former life. Now, she bears it in shame.
In order to acclimatize the shy and inexperienced Kivelli to her new surroundings, Kyria Effie assigns her to clean up after “her girls.” A relieved Kivelli complies. “Spared for the moment, she was sent back to the broom closet where she crawled into bed, pulling the quilt over her head to muffle the vulgar sounds coming through the grate. Her sleep was like death in the dank little room – without breath, without dreams.” (Goodtime Girl, p. 9)
While doing her chores, Kivelli sings, and her beautiful voice lingers out into the street, attracting Barba Yiannis, owner of a taverna nearby. Barba Yiannis invites Kivelli to sing in his taverna, which she agrees to dο in order to save herself from prostitution.
In poverty-stricken Pireaus , Kivelli’s new job earns her decent pay, but her singing entertains nothing but a boorish crowd of hashish smoking ‘manghes’ (tough guys). Kivelli endures the harshness of the ghetto by leaving her moral values and dreams aside. She acquires an affinity to the reek of sweat, and resin-covered floors, while she keeps company with seedy men, some for pleasure and others for her protection. She learns to act without remorse.
Fragoulis vividly captures the depressing mood of the Pireaus slums in the 1920s:
Along Pireaus’s waterfront, black curtains waved from open windows, boats in the harbour hoisted black sails and black shrouds hung off every tall building, the fabric stained and ripped like a whore’s nightgown. Fishmongers with blood on their aprons chased away stray, hollowed-eyed children. Listless bodies lined the streets like casualties of war. (6).
And then, Marianthi, the frivolous wife of the renowned musician, Smyrnioti, mysteriously befriends her and secures a place for Kivelli to sing among the musical elite of Athens.
Although Kivelli’s sudden obsession over a ‘mangha’ bouzouki player, Diamantis, is disturbing, it is he who gives her enough reason to finally lift her guard and allow herself to love again, unconditionally. A strange love triangle emerges between Kivelli, Marianthi and Diamantis. Kivelli’s dissection of each relationship, jointly and apart, leads to her salvation: a cleansing of the soul.
Supporting characters such as Marianthi and Narella, with their uplifting personalities, sparkle in the dark and are a refreshing contrast to the tense and erratic moods of the Smyrnioti, Diamantis, and Kivelli herself.
The Goodtime Girl is a compelling story of love, loss, self-awareness and life moving on.
Demetra Angelis Foustanellas is the author of Secrets in a Jewellery Box, which drew on years of research and her own recollections of the 1970s as a daughter of Greek immigrants. Her other publications include “A Place to Write” in Odyssey Magazine, and of course, “A Letter from Greece” in Canadian Writers Abroad.