The Secret Sister

Written by Fotini Tsalikoglou Mary Kitroeff (trans.)
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In January 2013, Jonathan Argyriou, a Manhattan-born third generation Greek-American, boards a plane in New York for Athens. Jonathan is travelling to Greece to learn more about his family. He was brought up by his grandparents and his alcoholic mother, and he doesn’t quite understand the relationship between his grandmother’s younger sister and his grandfather. Jonathan converses with his sister, Amalia, imagining she is occupying the empty seat next to him. We thus learn of the tragedies faced by the Argyriou family. Their ruin had begun during the 1922 Greco-Turkish War, when two orphaned sisters, little Erasmia and Frosso, had to flee Smyrna village for Athens. While Erasmia eventually manages to reach America, Frosso does not. By the time the planes reaches Athens, from his soul-searching and brainstorming with his sister, past memories flood back to Jonathan such that he himself recollects a good deal of his ancestry.

As noted on this book’s cover, Fortini Tsalikoglou’s novel indeed “explores the blurred line between history and memory.” While the short length of the novel does not permit detailed character development, the stream-of-consciousness writing style admirably fleshes out the story. Some readers might question Jonathan’s motive in embarking on such a long journey of discovery; however, it is his psychological frame of mind, muddled by family secrets, that Tsalikoglou portrays as one from which he cannot escape. Similar to Faulkner’s famous quote, Tsalikoglou notes: “The past is never over. It isn’t even past.” Nevertheless, the narrative is not an easy read, and were it not for the book’s evocative cover, and the informative flap and back cover text, the plot would take a huge effort to comprehend.