Adjusting to a Transformed World

In three first novels, characters struggle to reconstruct their lives after suffering losses - of privacy, autonomy, and family.

A CROWDED HEART

By Nicholas Papandreou

Picador

177 pp., $21

THE ARCHIVIST

By Martha Cooley

Little, Brown

328 pp., $22.95

THE ODD SEA

By Frederick Reiken

Harcourt Brace

224 pp., $22

If Nicholas Papandreou's name sounds familiar, it's because his father, Andreas Papandreou, became prime minister of Greece in 1981.

Alex, the narrator of A Crowded Heart, has much in common with his creator. Grandson of a famous freedom fighter known in his native Greece as "The Old Man of Democracy" and son of an up-and-coming political leader, Alex is born in America, but, while still a child, returns with his family to Greece, where conditions seem ripe for his father to enter the political fray.

Here is a novel that offers a new twist on the old theme of immigrants trying to adjust to life in the United States. Papandreou gives us, instead, an American boy trying to adjust to an ancestral homeland he finds fascinating but deeply foreign. And on top of the culture shock, young Alex has to cope with an even stranger experience: his own transition from a private individual to a public figure. Everywhere he goes, the boy is recognized as the descendant of his famous progenitors.

Alex soon discovers why it is significant that the "Greek language has no word for 'privacy,' except for the word idiotes, which means private citizen, the one who is not interested in society ... from which we get the word 'idiot.' " Crowds, politics, and lack of privacy become a way of life: "The world of my childhood was a world of crowds...." Papandreou's crisp, vividly evocative writing reveals the contours and colors of this world with pungent immediacy and keen insight.

At a time when nonfiction memoirs have become so prevalent, Papandreou has instead chosen the time-honored form of the autobiographical novel. The fact that it is offered as fiction does not in the least diminish the power of the story he tells.

To describe a book as interesting may seem faint praise, but Martha Cooley's first novel, The Archivist, is genuinely interesting. The eponymous central character is Matthias, a quiet, punctilious man with an almost religious dedication to his vocation as a librarian.

"It's impossible," he affirms, "to be a keeper of books and not feel a gratitude that extends to something beyond the intellects that created them - to a greater Mind, beneficent and lively and inconceivably large, which urges reading and writing."

Among the collections in his care is a cache of letters written by the poet T.S. Eliot to his friend Emily Hale. The terms of the endowment stipulate that no one be allowed to read them until the year 2020. Into the archives one day comes Roberta, a poet and graduate student bent on seeing the embargoed material. She feels certain the letters reveal the inner workings of Eliot's heart as he sought the consolations of religion and struggled with feelings of guilt over having consigned his first wife to an asylum.

Roberta's concern with Eliot's treatment of his mentally troubled wife has a disturbing resonance for Matthias, whose own wife, Judith, ended her days in a mental institution. Slim, dark, intelligent, and intense, Roberta also reminds Matthias of Judith. Roberta is the daughter of German Jews who fled the Nazis, converted to Christianity, and brought her up in ignorance of her and their Jewishness. What angers Roberta is not that her parents chose a different faith from the one into which they'd been born, but that they denied their history and identity by never speaking of whom they had been before their conversion.

Like Roberta, Matthias's wife, Judith, was Jewish. As a young married woman in the decade following World War II, she became preoccupied with the fates of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. She kept a file of survivors' testimonies and pored over books of Jewish mysticism in an effort to understand how such things could have happened. But rather than finding a way to share her concern, Matthias reacted by sending her to a mental institution.

The journal she kept of her sojourn there forms the middle section of the novel, providing a bitterly ironic gloss on the limitations of modern psychology: While Judith broods over the devastation of the Holocaust, her psychiatrist keeps asking about her rather uneventful childhood in New York.

"The Archivist" is a novel that probes complex questions - about love, religious faith, and the conflict between a writer's desire for privacy and the reader's hunger for revelations. Cooley's portrait of the relationship between the middle-aged archivist and the intense young student is nicely understated. Her limpid prose is ideally suited to her material. But in a number of ways, the themes she has sounded do not quite come together in a satisfying conclusion. Judith and Roberta seem to embody the claims of history, identity, and memory, but it's not clear whether Matthias's final action is a rejection or an acceptance of those claims. It's even less clear if we are expected to see a parallel between Judith's perhaps obsessive but hardly irrational grief over the Holocaust and the genuinely irrational behavior of the first Mrs. Eliot. But, despite its disappointing ending, "The Archivist" is an imaginative and compassionate novel that marks the debut of a noteworthy writer.

The hill country of western Massachusetts is the setting for Frederick Reiken's engrossing, beautifully written story of a teenager trying to keep up his hopes in the aftermath of his brother's mystifying disappearance. Philip Shumway, the narrator of The Odd Sea, is 13 when his older brother Ethan goes out for a walk and never returns. Each member of the Shumway family - father, mother, and four remaining children - reacts differently to this dreadful ordeal. It is Philip who seems the most concerned with finding ways of believing that Ethan may still be alive, somewhere, somehow. He devotes himself to discovering everything he can about Ethan's life up until his disappearance, poring over his brother's diary, walking through the woods he knew so well, looking for clues everywhere - including the nearby artists' colony where Ethan was befriended by the unconventional director, Victoria Rhone.

Through Philip's eyes, we see the ongoing effects on a family of the unexplained, continuing, unresolved absence of one of its members. We also watch as Philip himself grows into adulthood, his personality shaped by his deepening sense of the darker side of life and of the ways in which human beings can learn to cope with it. Reiken has the gift of creating characters whose lives seem to go on even after we have read the last page of the novel.

A Family Rooted in History

I tasted politics when I was eight years old. That was the first time I saw people swarm down the hills of Achaia, a province in Northern Peloponnesus which was both my grandfather's birthplace and his electoral district. Priests with staffs, shepherds in sheepskin overcoats, children in bare feet and tattered shorts, indestructible old men and ancient stalwarts descended to listen to the "Old Man of Democracy" give a speech in the square of King George I. Taxi-drivers, pipe-fitters, farmers in their black Sunday suits, long-haired girls of angelic beauty whose poverty had not yet killed their freshness, all coming to hear my grandfather, who had been speaking "for the people" since 1908 and who, in his mid-seventies, had become the country's greatest orator. In him a century of poverty had found its voice. - From 'A Crowded Heart' by Nicholas Papandreou

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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