In 1970, when feminists in the U.S. declared “the personal is the political,” Greece was three years into a brutal military junta, where public protest was harshly silenced with arrest, torture, or exile to remote island prisons. Yet despite the fundamental differences between American and Greek dissent during these turbulent years, “the personal is the political” is the defining theme of Natalie Bakopoulos’s debut novel, The Green Shore.
Bakopoulos traces the lives of a middle-class Greek family living under the junta, and though the stakes are perhaps too low in this quiet novel for it to qualify as a “saga,” The Green Shore explores the breadth and intimacy of the bond between the personal and the political. Under the dictatorship, each member of the family—widowed matriarch Eleni; her brother, a compelling dissident-poet; and her three teenaged children—feels a charge when their ordinary lives collide with high political drama.
The intersecting relationships in The Green Shore are sharply drawn, and Bakopoulos thoughtfully describes the messy resentments and hurts of a typical family. Told in turns from the perspective of each of its members, the personal choices the characters face are meticulously considered—whether to flee the country or stay and resist; whether to pursue an affair with a handsome radical or stay with a stable conservative. In one perplexing scene, we can discern Bakopoulos’s own struggle in deciding what will become of her characters: when Sophie, the eldest daughter, discovers she is pregnant, “she quietly went to the clinic…and took care of it. . . .She felt a small amount of numbness and a whole lot of relief.” One page later, though, Sophie is still pregnant, and the book concludes as she goes into labor.
Beyond the family, tourists are everywhere in the Greece of The Green Shore, and the novel is valuable more for what it reveals about the experience of U.S.-born descendants of Greeks—like Bakopoulos herself—than it does about Greeks living in Greece. When the family’s only son, grown and with a child of his own, returns to Greece after a long absence, he brings along his daughter for her first visit to her ancestral country. In the book’s strongest passage, Eleni laments that her granddaughter, born and raised in Detroit, “would have the same one-sided generic view of Greece that anyone, anywhere could conjure.”
The reigning junta, however, is not as well defined as any of the individual characters: though Bakopoulos is wise to sketch the dictatorship obliquely, lurking as it did at the ends of the family’s lives, the rare glimpses we get of it fall flat. In conversation, for example, often our only encounter with the regime, characters will call it “stupid” or “full of fanatical idiots.” These schoolyard taunts are hardly the language of terror, though, and are decidedly below Bakopoulos’s talents. Indeed, while, Bakopoulos delivers a richly personalized portrait of life during the junta, in this aptly titled novel, Greece is observed only from the shore.