Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2022

A Stranger Here, by Gillian Bouras

A chance comment a short while ago at Whispering Gums reminded me of the work of Gillian Bouras, so I didn’t hesitate when I saw one of her titles while browsing at Dromana Books.

Gillian Bouras (b. 1945) is an expat Australian writer who fascinated us in the 1980s with her first book, the autobiographical A Foreign Wife, a story of reverse migration. As it says on her website:

She married George Bouras, a Greek emigrant to Australia, in 1969. In 1980 she went with her husband and her two sons to the Peloponnese area of Greece, initially for a six-month holiday but they ended up staying. She had her third son in Greece, and eventually took out Greek citizenship.

It is decades since I read A Foreign Wife (1986) but I remember its melancholy well.  It was such a contrast to the happy sun-drenched days on Corfu in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956) which I’d  read at school, and to the image of island life in Charmian Clift’s books about her sojourn in Greece – Mermaid Singing (1954) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959).  We read Clift’s books now with the knowledge of subsequent tragedy and we now notice the culture shock and the patriarchal society more, but at the time those books fed a fantasy of an idyllic island life, and were a boon to Greek tourism.

The honesty of A Foreign Wife showed a different side to the story. A story which expressed the feelings of countless women uprooted from where they belong by the assumption that they will follow the wants and needs of a husband.  A story which laid bare the different expectations for women who try to fit in and find that they can’t do that while remaining true to themselves.

Bouras continued to explore the complexities of exile and cultural identity in her writing and in her novel A Stranger Here (1996) she uses three different voices to convey the judgement of three women.  Artemis is the ageing matriarch sliding into senility but fiction allows us to see her thoughts and she still has a sharp tongue and a determination to justify traditional ways.  For her, a failure to accept the way things are, is a moral failure, and she had no compunction about saying so.

Juliet is an Englishwoman who has acquiesced to the status quo.  For her, although she is no fool and recognises the misogyny that surrounds her, mutual love enables contentment.  As the reader sees in her private diary, she understands the bargain that must be struck.  Her marriage to a Greek man has brought her motherhood and a role in his society that might have contented her in her England anyway.

But for Irene, motherhood and family would not have been enough anywhere.  She is a writer, compulsively expressing her thoughts and emotions as an aspect of everyday life but nobody understands that writing is her work.  Married to Vasily, (the son of Artemis), Irene has landed in a culture that has no place for her.  And when Vasily spends all his evenings at the tavern, she realises that it is not just that he’s conforming to male behaviour in the village, but that he doesn’t love her anyway.

To have given up everything for the one you love is one thing.  Adjustment to a hostile, judgemental new culture without the love and support of a partner was devastating and made Irene very fragile.  That vulnerability led her to make the momentous decision to leave, abandoning her children along with the life she could no longer endure.

Her pain at this displacement expresses itself most poignantly in her incessant letters to Joachim, her youngest, and the child whose birth almost killed her.

Irene has no daughters.  She loves her three children with the bitter tenderness mothers sometimes reserve for their sons, mothers whose boys look at them all too often with the eyes of strangers.  And she is wracked with pain and guilt over leaving Joachim, her youngest who is only twelve.  She writes to him every day: the flow of postcards never stops. (p. 4)

From England she sends postcards of tourist attractions with inconsequential chat about London and questions about school on the back.  Boarding school is never an option, it is Irene who comes ‘home’ for the holidays.

But Irene has no home.  She is untethered and doesn’t belong anywhere any more, her sense of unbelonging exacerbated by the death of her mother back in Australia.

Juliet’s role in this novel is to analyse Irene’s motivations and behaviour, and she represents what Irene aspires to be but cannot achieve.

Irene and I are both, at this point, grieving for our lost youth, among other things, but I’ve stayed put with mine.  Irene took hers and ran away.  It’s not clear to me what she’s done with her bag of hopes and dreams.  It’s probably fallen apart in the streets of London, the contents scattered all over those hard pavements.  She told me once that her family’s motto is ‘all or nothing.’  She’s certainly lived by it.  I wonder if she’s yet reached the conclusion that she could end up with nothing.

She wanted a different life, that was the thing.  She wanted a literary sort of life in another place.  Perhaps she felt that her life, her self, had been confiscated.  Self.  Place.  Place is so important, as every dis-placed person knows.  Places can hurt you, just as much as a heedless or vindictive person can, and it’s obvious that the interaction of person and place can do a whole lot of damage.

Greece wasn’t what Irene was used to, not what she wanted, and she didn’t choose to be there.  She came and stayed because she loved Joachim’s father very much for a long time.  She told me that. (p.176)

Love can be blind…

Irene herself was wilfully blind for a long period, but she sees now that this was probably for the best and that everything happens in its own time.  The scales shifted from her eyes on several occasions but she replaced them very firmly, until this was no longer possible and they fell off altogether.  Although she could not see herself very clearly, and still cannot, she  saw enough to know that she was lost in the limitless desert of other people’s expectations.  (p.192)

Wherever she goes, no place is truly home.

A Stranger Here is a powerful exposé of the potential for disaster in anyone’s migration journey.  From the awfulness of not being able to express oneself properly in a foreign language, to being judged on a daily basis about everything from clothing choices to child-rearing, life where you don’t belong can be soul-destroying.

Highly recommended if you can find a copy.

Author: Gillian Bouras
Title: A Stranger Here
Cover designer: not credited
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1996
ISBN: 9780140261141, pbk.,247 pages
Source: personal library, purchased secondhand from Dromana Books


Responses

  1. What an interesting life story she has. Thank you for sharing.

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    • If I ever get to Greece (ha!) I’ll be viewing it through the prism of these books…

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  2. This does sound good Lisa. Despite regularly wishing I could get out this country, I can’t imagine having to uproot myself and move to somewhere with such a different culture and set of standards. I might feel drawn to France at times, but if I’m honest I’d probably choose to go home to Scotland!!!

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    • An independent Scotland?
      When they held their first referendum I thought they were mad… but now, post Brexit and Covid, I’m not so sure. My guess is that when the old queen dies, it will be a catalyst for another referendum…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Having read Charmian Clift’s two volumes last year, this one and A Foreign Wife both interest me for the very different look they give one into Greece and Greek society. Thanks for bringing these to our attention🙂

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    • You know, the more I think about this book, I think she was also addressing the wider problem that beset young women everywhere at that time. All of us had an older woman in our lives who oozed disapproval at our jobs, our parenting, our clothes, our entry into higher education and most of all for having what they did not have. Some older women cheered us on, but still asserted that their life was what they wanted and did not change themselves. Others were overtly critical and were especially vitriolic about the bad effects of our choices on our children. And there were also women who called themselves Women Who Want to be Women, like Juliet in the story.
      Add to that potent brew a culture wedded to its past, with a key proportion of its citizenry illiterate and unable to keep up with contemporary thought and new ideas, and with men who could see no advantage in change, and the insularity of the village in this story is a microcosm of the wider society.

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      • That does make sense; re men’s attitudes, one can still see it in terms of many not wanting their female counterparts to outshine them, whether at work or in the family.

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        • Many? Based on my experience, I’d say some.
          Of a sample of four (my father, my son, and both my husbands), all of them were 100% supportive of everything I’ve done. My present husband organised our entire wedding while I worked on my first book to meet the deadline the day before the wedding, and he’s followed that up by being my own personal travel agent because I was always too busy at work to be involved in planning our overseas holidays.
          Male colleagues OTOH were a mixed bunch. Among others, I had three great principals who were more ambitious for me than I was for myself. The rest, well… they’re best forgotten IMO.

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          • I’ve never personally experienced it; both in my family (parents) and work environment, I have had no cause to feel it either, in fact quite the opposite–like your experience. It’s just from observations in a neighbourhood I lived in, I noticed quite a few people like this. Nothing major but small everyday behaviours where patriarchal attitudes seemed very obvious. Perhaps the fact that I hadn’t ever seen such attitudes before made it stand out all the more.

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            • I know what you mean… seeing the anti-vaxx protestors was such a surprise. They’re a tiny minority but I didn’t know they existed.

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  4. I’ve not heard of this author but she sounds very incisive. I think I’d enjoy her.

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    • I think you would too. I wonder if she was ever published by Virago?

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      • Sadly I don’t think so. It looks like she’s not easy to get hold of in the UK. But not impossible! I shall look out for her.

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        • There is a new project here in Australia called Untapped, which is a not-for-profit publishing initiative to digitise authors whose backlist has gone out of print. It hasn’t been going for long, but it exists to make titles like this one available, so who knows, maybe you’ll be able to get it from them at some stage. (You can read more about the project at Whispering Gums.)

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I know there aren’t a lot of similarities between the stories, but the cover of this novel and that in the previous post strike me as similar; solitary figures against a pale backdrop of landscape, though obviously the writers have done a fine job immersing readers in a very colourful experience.

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  6. Yes, this one interests me… I think it’s a solitary boy… possibly an allusion to the boy left behind, but I don’t think so because he’s not solitary, he’s part of village life and still with his father and brothers, as well as having regular contact with his mother by mail, and also in person during holidays.
    So I suspect it’s another example of Penguin’s ad hoc covers in this period, added with very little thought at all.

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  7. This review reached me by a circuitous route. I am very grateful for it
    and for all the subsequent comments. Many thanks to everybody.

    Gillian

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  8. I had an aunt (in law) who married a Yugoslav in Australia after WWII and went back with him to live what was basically a traditional peasant life. She enjoyed it, she said, but they were soon back in Australia.

    Charmian Clift, whom you mentioned wrote a novel, Honours Mimic, around an English woman married to a Greek man and taken back by him to Kalymnos. My favourite author when I was young, PC Wren, wrote a novel whose name I forget, about the horrors of a middle class English wife taken back to India to live in a home dominated by her mother in law. Marriages never involve just the couple.

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    • O true, o wise one! We have to try and remember that when we are parents-in-law ourselves!!

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