Kritsotopoula, by Yvonne Payne, is split into two unequal halves. The first section, which is longer, gives the background to the Cretan culture and its troubles in the mid-19th century. It is related entirely by the central character – Kritsotopoula herself, whose birth name was Rodanthe, but who later calls herself Spanos – in flashback episodes, to a woman who helps her in a time of dire need. This part has a somewhat immature voice, although terrible events are described. The second section switches to a third person, with a more adult perspective as Kritsotopoula moves from speech to action. It is driven by a series of small skirmishes, leading towards a major confrontation with Turkish forces.
The outcome of the story is never in doubt, being largely described on the back cover. Payne’s intention is not so much to relate a complex series of events but rather to give a detailed description of what it would have been like to live on Crete during those very difficult days. This is illustrated by her choice of setting, since the circumstances of Kritsotopoula’s life were far from a triumphal victory over oppression. Hers was simply one chapter in a much larger epic. I came away intrigued, and profoundly relieved that I am not living in that place and time.
The villages, towns and monasteries, the ceremonies and the food, the tightly circumscribed roles of men and women, the constant cultural friction between Greek and Turk, Christian and Muslim, and the sheer difficulties of crossing any of those boundaries – all are explored here. It is a book which needs to be read for immersion in life’s details. As such, it is extremely educative, as the extent of Payne’s research is apparent, but this is not an adventure or action story.