First-generation Greek-American novelist Henriette Lazaridis Power remembers happy childhood summers in the Peloponnesian city of Patras. She heard lively family stories of the past woven by her mother, aunts, and uncle. From her father, she gathered seminal experiences of occupied Athens. In her debut novel, “The Clover House,” Power draws from all those tales, synthesizing family experiences into a compelling fictional portrait that illuminates and contrasts the Greece of today with the country during the troubled era of the early 1940s, under Italian occupation and burgeoning fascism.
Shifting between two generations, the central voices of “The Clover House” are Calliope (Callie) Notaris Brown, who lives with her fiance in Boston, and Callie’s long-suffering mother, Clio, who comes most vividly to life in recollections from 1940s Greece. At the crux of the novel’s plot is a family secret that threatens to shed some light on the emotional distance between the two. However, the unraveling of that mystery is not particularly suspenseful and is less compelling than the day-to-day action and shifting dynamics among all the people in Callie’s life — from her fiance and extended family to a ragtag group of Greek revelers who befriend Callie during a bus trip.
The catalyst in “The Clover House” is the death of Uncle Nestor. Just past her 35th birthday, Callie gets a call that her mother’s younger brother has died, leaving all the contents of his house to her. This necessitates a hurried trip to Patras in order to sift through her uncle’s vast bequest, a Pandora’s box of books, newspaper clippings, recordings, and mementos. In the process, she reconnects with her mother, who returned from the United States after Callie’s father died, setting up a 10-year estrangement that made Callie question the very essence of their relationship.
Once in Greece, Callie finds out some of her mother’s stories didn’t happen the way she had been led to believe. As she sifts through Uncle Nestor’s belongings, she starts to sense that there is something there her uncle hoped she would discover, something that might help untangle the threads of memories not just frayed by time, but corrupted by self-preservation into a calculated reimagining.
Founding editor of The Drum literary magazine, and a former teacher and academic dean at Harvard, Power lives in the Boston area. But it’s clear that the powerful pull of Greece’s warm climate and lively culture is deeply ingrained. She gives colorful descriptions of present-day Carnival in Patras, with its long days of chaos and merriment, parades and masked Bourbouli dances. Even more captivating is her evocation of the family farm where Clio and her siblings grew up, before it was taken over during the war. The book’s title comes from “a small village of four child-size houses out of shoulder-high forage grasses of clover and rye” that one of the vineyard workers constructed for the Notaris children.
The tone of “The Clover House” is a bit uneven, and most of the relationships are frustratingly dysfunctional, without clear motivation and resolution. What resonates most strongly is Power’s insightful examination of memory and the stories that hold us together — or perhaps tear us apart. As Callie’s cousin Aliki, one of the book’s most vibrant and sympathetic characters, maintains, “Most of us don’t even have clear lives in the present. How much more confused do our stories get when a few years go by? Or when we hand the stories down? . . . They’ve been told so many times it’s a wonder they can still hold together. You use something that much, it’s bound to wear thin.”
“The Clover House” eloquently questions the wisdom of relying too much on memories of the past as a guide for understanding the present.Karen Campbell is a Boston-based freelance writer.
She can be reached at Karencampbell4@rcn.com.