The Goodtime Girl, by Tess Fragoulis

Cormorant Books has a reputation for bringing out books of high literary quality. Tess Fragoulis’s latest lives up to this publisher’s standards.

The protagonist of The Goodtime Girl is Kivelli Fotiathi, who has enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy young beauty, indulged by her widowed father. Her rebellious nature leads her to escape the confining companionship of her Aunt Penelope, enjoying the forbidden pleasures of an innocent flirtation in the midnight streets. But it is 1922, and her town is Smyrna. In the destruction of the city she loses her family, and is forced into the precarious life of a refugee in Piraeus, near Athens.

Now life on the streets becomes a grim reality. She owns only the clothes on her back  and an extraordinary singing voice. It is the voice which takes her from the brothel into which she has been co-opted to the tavernas where manghas – tough guys – spend their nights.

There are silences at the heart of the story. Kivelli refuses to let any of her lovers spend the night, frightened of what she will reveal as she sleeps. When a friend stays over, Kivelli makes her promise one thing: “If I scream or talk in my sleep, don’t wake me and don’t tell me what I said in the morning. If you do, we’ll never speak again.” We learn of what her nights were like. “It was nearly noon, and Kivelli was still lying in bed, exhausted and reluctant to enter the day. Though she didn’t remember her dreams, there was no doubt they were having their way with her. Her arms were numb, her legs cramped as if she’d been tossed by seas brimming with corpses and battered by winds in an endless, futile journey.”

Kyra Xanthi, a fortune teller, persuades Kivelli to break her silence about the Catastrophe - “What happened to you happened to all of us. For some a little more, for others a little less,” she says. (…) “We are all carrying the dead on our backs, but every so often we must put them down and dance a little. Why don’t you tell me your story, Kivelli, so you can put on those pretty shoes and dance?”

But Kivelli is not able to put down her dead. “Despite her best efforts, Kivelli clearly hadn’t forgotten anything. Telling Kyra Xanthi her sorry tale had done nothing to dislodge the hardened ball of grief behind her ribcage. It had only become more difficult to ignore and made her even more wary of stepping into the Smyrniot’s territory, which was, no doubt, filled with happy ghosts pretending they hadn’t died.”

The Smyrniot, famous musician Panayotis Doukas, is pushed into hiring Kivelli as a singer by his wife, Marianthi. The Doukas couple left Smyrna before the destruction, and were living in a house filled with furniture and china rescued from the goods and chattals of drowned refugees. But Marianthi has her own silence. She is a gifted songwriter, but cannot sing. When she first meets Kivelli, she tells her “I need your voice.” The Smyrniot takes credit for his wife’s songs – a not unlikely attitude in that patriarchal society.

The friendship of Marianthi and Kivelli is an uneasy one, one which drives the novel to its wonderful conclusion. Marianthi introduces Kivelli to Diamantis, a handsome and talented bouzouki player. Kivelli falls in love with Diamantis – someone Marianthi has staked out as her own. “Diamantis made Kivelli happy, so happy she often forgot to be frightened or wary or sad.” The affair is a turning point in the novel, far more than Kivelli’s unburdening to the fortune teller.

The sights and sounds of Smyrna, Piraeus and Athens are brought to life by Fragoulis’s finely crafted prose. The cast of characters – manghas, manghissas, and the girls in Kyria Effie’s brothel, are fully realized. The result is a novel which is as tough and intelligent as Kivelli herself.

© Margaret Goldik, 2012

Margaret Goldik is secretary of the Quebec Library Association, a reviewer, and an editor.

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