Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2018

A Perfect Stone, by S.C. Karakaltsas

Greek migrants have been coming to Melbourne ever since the Gold Rush but their numbers surged in the postwar era when Arthur Calwell’s ‘populate or perish’ immigration program offered hope and a home to peoples devastated by the war.  People of Greek heritage are now an integral part of the fabric of our city, so much so that Melbourne is said to be the third largest Greek city in the world. Like many other Melburnians I have friends of Greek heritage and I have celebrated their festivals, dined in their restaurants, and tangled my toes in Zorba’s dance to the music of Mikis Theodorakis on Greek Independence Day.  And yet until I read A Perfect Stone by Melbourne author Sylvia Marakaltsas, I did not know a thing about the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).

Even more embarrassing is that I did not know that amongst the genial older Greeks of my acquaintance, some may have been refugees from that civil war. Some, perhaps, of the 38000 children of Northern Greece who were subject to forced evacuations from their homes.  And some perhaps, whose identity as Macedonians is still contested, even today.

A Perfect Stone fictionalises this situation through the story of Jim Phillips, a Melbourne man who is to all intents and purposes an Aussie through and through, but in his old age finds long-suppressed memories of his childhood as Dimitri coming back.  The dual timeline takes the reader from Northern Greece in 1948 where Dimitri makes his horrific journey from his village to safety over the border, to present-day Melbourne where this past life resurfaces, much to the consternation of his only daughter Helen who knew nothing about it.

The book is self-published, but professionally edited (which is why I agreed to read it).  I think it’s a little longer than it needed to be, and that some of the daughter’s bossiness and agitation could have been culled but overall the novel is compelling reading.  The scenes in Dimitri’s village show the discrimination against him because of the politics of Macedonian/Greek identity* but it is the impact of war on the village that is most vivid.  Through the eyes of small children Karakaltsas shows the horror of the bombing and the daily misery of hunger, exacerbated by the partisans demanding food from people who are already only living at subsistence level.

The time comes when distraught parents witness the forced evacuation of their children to neighbouring (communist) Yugoslavia.  Young communists escort the children across the mountains, the harrowing barefoot trek punctuated by the deaths of some of the children from hunger, disease or bombing attacks.  Dimitri—who is only about ten years old—sees things that no child should ever see, and he suffers enormous guilt because he is unable to protect a very much younger child assigned to him to look after, and because he is complicit in the death of an adult.  And when he gets across the border he is separated in the confusion at the railway station from the friends he has made en route, and ends up in what was then Czechoslovakia instead of Skopje in Yugoslavia.

(This scenario reminds me that my father was evacuated from London as a boy, but in circumstances utterly unlike this situation.  Some of the children whose story is represented in A Perfect Stone died—and some never saw their parents again.)

A Perfect Stone has the ring of authenticity because of the author’s heritage and her knowledge of family stories.  The book is dedicated to every child who was, and is, a refugee seeking the right to a better life.

*This whole issue is very complicated, and I don’t pretend to understand it fully.  (Nor do I want to host any arguments about it here either).  But to simplify it as best I can, it’s a bit like the situation with the Kurds where people who (some say) identify as Kurds, live across the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and the nations involved fear a loss of territory and sovereignty if the Kurds were ever to unite to form a new nation.  So even the question of whether there is, or isn’t, a separate ethnic Kurdish identity is contested (with consequences for the use of flags, songs and stories, language and traditional dress &c).  The Macedonian issue has been complicated further by Cold War tensions because, it is argued, Communist Yugoslavia wanted to destabilise ‘Macedonian’ northern Greece, and with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia the issue escalated because of the emergence of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a nation in 1993.  You can read about them here.  The Greek position is that the ‘Macedonians’ of Northern Greece are Greek, and don’t recognise them as an ethnic minority.  In the novel Dimitri is not allowed to speak Macedonian, he is ridiculed on his first day at school for wearing a traditional Macedonian tunic embroidered with love by his grandmother, and his mother recounts stories of Greek brutality against Macedonians in the village and the murder of an activist called Mirka Ginova.  However, although there is a brief explanation of this at the back of the book to explain the competing reasons for the forced evacuations, it is not the focus of the story and you don’t need to know about it to read the book.

That pitch-perfect cover design is by Jonny Lynch Graphics.

A Perfect Stone is available at Amazon, details at the author’s website.

Author: S.C. Karakaltsas
Title: A Perfect Stone
Publisher: Karadie Publishing, Melbourne, 2018, 340 pages
ISBN: 9780994503268
Review copy courtesy of the author.


Responses

  1. I have this on my review list to read. I interviewed the author recently (she was lovely) and featured the novel. It struck me as an interesting story and your review confirms it. I’ll include the link to the interview here in case anyone is interested in further info about the author.
    https://theresasmithwrites.com/2018/10/10/behind-the-pen-with-s-c-karakaltsas/

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    • Thanks, Theresa, I must have missed that post. (How did that happen, I follow my favourite blogs slavishly?!)
      As I say on your blog, I am surprised that a commercial publisher hasn’t picked up this story and given it the publicity and support it deserves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps she has automatically self-published because she’s already on that road? There are so many authors doing this, actively publishing themselves and not even enquiring with the publishing houses any longer. It does limit the exposure though. I am hoping to read it soon, it’s about two books away on my ‘ebook pile’. Before the interview, I too had never heard of the Greek civil war. There is just so much history out there still to be tapped into…
        Mysteriously, I miss posts too which always surprises me because I comb through my reader almost daily.

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        • LOL Perhaps it’s just as well… if we read everything that came through we’d never have any time for reading, much less writing reviews…
          The trouble with self-published books is that so many of us have had such bad experiences with them that they all tend to be tarred with the same brush. People talk about publishers being the gatekeepers but the writers of rubbish have created a solid mega-wall that the good authors have to surmount in order to be taken seriously. Sylvia got over that wall because she was upfront about being self-published, assured me that it had been edited and proofread, and offered to send me a sample (so that didn’t clog up my inbox without my permission first). I found it impossible to resist. But having said that, I still would probably not have agreed if her subject matter hadn’t piqued my interest.
          I just hate having my reading time wasted on books that aren’t ready for publication. with the few I’ve acceded to, if they don’t hold up I mostly abandon them with a friendly email that explains my reasons to the author but occasionally I don’t hold back: https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/12/21/tracks-by-channa-wickremesekera-bookreview/

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          • I have to agree with you and I tend not to read many self-published titles either, despite having self-published my own books, which I have since unpublished. Part of why I unpublished them has a lot to do with that mega-wall you mention above. As a self-published author, you really are lumped in as one and it’s virtually impossible to shake. I’ve also realised, in this journey of reviewing which involves much closer reading and analysis than my reading pre-reviewing, that apart from my last novel, the previous four were not ready for publication and it seemed pretty hypocritical to have them out there in the world when I won’t even read novels for review that are published the same way. So I pulled them all, even the last one that was professionally edited. And I’ve moved on. Now, I feel quite comfortable refusing self-published titles as there is no hypocrisy that can be attached to me doing so.
            I clicked on your link and I think your comments are fair given the context you provide them in. Still, hope you weren’t the recipient of any backlash!

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            • Goodness, I had no idea you’d self-published, I hope I haven’t hurt any feelings…that would be the last thing I would want to do because I really value not only your reviews which I admire – but also our friendship even though we’ve never met!
              No, no backlash, just a resounding silence.
              But you know, one other thing I learned from that review is that self-published authors can be vulnerable to buying services that wouldn’t get far in the professional publishing industry. They need editors, proof-readers, and cover designers and these services being in the marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean they are good enough. Even professional publishers are let down sometimes by their proof-readers: I know this because I’ve occasionally had private correspondence with publishers, alerting them to typos and other problems. We have all learned to put up with minor typos even with big name publishers who should do better.
              But structural editing, and editing for cultural crassness such as veiled homophobia or casual racism or anti-Semitism, that’s much more significant and I can think of at least one book that was published by a small publisher that should have been vetted much more stringently than it was. So I don’t know how those who self-publish can feel confident that the editing has been done properly.
              Good editors are the unsung heroes of the literary world, IMO.

              Liked by 1 person

              • In recent years there has been only what can be described as an explosion of services on offer to authors who are self-publishing. But it was beginning to really bother me as I was noticing people I knew from online circles all of a sudden begin offering ‘editing expertise’ or ‘marketing advice’, all for a cost, when previously they had no expertise in these areas whatsoever. More and more, self-published authors were being targeted by service providers who were not as skilled as they were making out. I personally knew one woman who had self-published one novel and from there, launched a business directed at other self-published authors whereby she promised to ‘market your book launch’. It was a world I couldn’t associate with anymore. I agree with you on editors, they are most definitely the unsung heroes but I lost count of how many self-published authors who would say in chat forums that they had skipped on professional editing because they couldn’t afford it. In truth, it would take a long time to make the investment back on cheaply priced ebooks (I never made it back), but the risk is alienating your readers with badly edited work, which lets face it, translates to readers as badly written work.
                The whole exercise, five books later, taught me a lot about many things, both writing and publishing related. But most of all, it taught me that I wasn’t cut out to be a self-published author. I am far more at home with reviewing but the inside knowledge doesn’t go astray. It has made me rather judgemental though, and very cautious, when it comes to reading self-published books.
                Definitely no hurt feelings…I share your view which is why I left!

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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  3. You and Theresa got too narrow for me to continue reading. I had a good friend in Melbourne who identified as Macedonian (because his wife did) but whose famous brother identified as Greek. That is, that was their heritage, they were all Australians. They arrived as young boys in the early 1960s and said their grandmother stayed behind in the mountains, tilling a few acres with a single furrow plough pulled by a cow.

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    • Too narrow on the phone, you mean? Sorry!
      It’s a thorny issue, one that can divide families…

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  4. LOOKS GOOD AND ANOTHER GREAT REVIEW LISA, CHINA

    china.alexandria@livingthedream.blog

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  5. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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  6. Hello, as someone who has Macedonian heritage, this book sounds very interesting. I am hunting down a copy. Thank you for a great review.

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    • You’re welcome, Emily. It’s great to discover books from our own heritage, especially if they tell us the stories that we didn’t hear from our parents!

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  7. […] A Perfect Stone by S K Karakaltsas […]

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