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Four Trowels

THE PALE SURFACE OF THINGS

By: Janey Bennett
Hopeace Press:  Victoria, British Columbia
2007 (pb)

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from author Janey Bennett, who asked, half apologetically, if I would review her novel, The Pale Surface of Things.  It had received several awards, but it was still largely her responsibility to promote her work. 

Because the premise of the story sounded intriguing—a young American archaeologist excavating on Crete runs out on his bride-to-be on their wedding day and the girl is his patron’s daughter—I gladly accepted the offer.  I anticipated a somewhat madcap adventure/farce a la Arthur Philips’s recent best-seller, The Egyptologist.   

What I received was a wonderfully crafted, superbly written nuanced novel of redemption that deserves a wide reading public.  Author Bennett claims to have spent seven years in researching and writing this, her first novel, and I believe this labor of love was worth every moment of her effort.   

The tale is deceptively simple in many ways.  It follows the paths of several characters—an American archaeologist, Douglas Watkins, who indeed does leave his bride at the altar; an orthodox priest, Fr. Dimitrios Papadakis, born on Crete but reared in the United State who is following in his grandfather’s pastoral footsteps; an American entrepreneur, George Hanson, who seems to be following in the footsteps of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and his hopelessly narcissistic daughter, the hapless bride-to-be Denise; a young Cretan widow, Vasilia and her son, Aleko, both of whom befriend Douglas while he is on the run; a thuggish village politician, Spiros Kiriakis and his equally thuggish son, Manolis; and a variety of citizens of the villages in the shadow of Lefka Ori, the white mountains of Crete.  These wonderful characters, introduced at the outset as rather one-dimensional creations, become nuanced and complex as the narrative unfolds.  They lead their separate existences and then at meaningful junctures, as if in a literary minuet, they idiosyncratically yet gracefully enter into and impact on each other’s lives and then step back once again.  The language of the narrative is equally graceful as its rhythms seem uniquely suited to convey the timelessness of life in the Cretan countryside; the sense of place and atmosphere is brilliantly evoked by author Bennett. 

Remembrance of things past, in particular the Nazi occupation and brutalization of the island of Crete, plays an integral part in the novel as Fr. Dimitrios must face the demons of his family’s past—but in so doing he provides an avenue for Douglas Watkins,  feckless and self-absorbed at the outset of the novel,  to redeem himself and his existence.  After a series of harrowing adventures and near-disasters, Douglas finds new meaning and richness of life represented in the traditional culture of the Cretan countryside.  Fr. Dimitrios defines this lesson succinctly with his statement late in the novel:  “This small village, Vraho, somehow contains every shading of human life.  To love this place is to love the world.” 

When you read The Pale Surface of Things, you will learn about Crete and its people; you will learn about iconography; you will learn about archaeological obsession; you will learn about the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Crete; you will laugh at some of the characters and you will cry with others.  But most of all, you will know that you have read a truly remarkable piece if literature!  Four trowels for this first novel by Janey Bennett—but only because I can’t give more!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.