A brash coming-of-age tale that merges two eras

Sunday is a rebellious Greek teenager who hates authority, mocks her parents, is easily bored, «jumps» lots of guys, and smokes «animals,» her word for Camel cigarettes. All is stereotypical for Sunday until she finds out that her silent daddy may not actually be her real father – a revelation which sends Baba packing to his mother’s and plunges 15-year-old Sunday into a family history that brims with a strange love story, village intrigue, the trap of tradition, and a supporting cast that includes a wicked grandmother with one breast, a kindly lesbian widow and the full monty of ridiculous men. But while «The Last Day of Paradise» (Gival Press, 2006), the bold debut novel by the young Greek-born, American-educated writer Kiki Denis has all the right instincts for a kaleidoscopic coming-of-age tale, its snarling language and bifocal narrative feel forced and rushed, as if young Sunday has just plopped down at the kitchen table and blabbed the whole weird story in one Camel-fueled sitting. The details are lurid and the characters are intriguingly kooky, but the story is hard to follow and the heady prose is often stranded between the narrator’s two languages, Greek and English. You want to listen, but you also want Sunday to get the hell out of your kitchen. Which is a pity, since Sunday does have something to say, even if she doesn’t know quite how to say it. She’s smart enough to sense a strain of tragedy in Chrysa, her double-sized, sweets-loving mother and to demand a clear explanation of why Baba walked out. She struggles to understand her mother’s own story – which bridges the nonchalant freedom of Sunday’s own world with the anxious traditionalism of Chrysa’s youth – and so offers insight into the universal mother-daughter drama. Yet it is Chrysa, not Sunday, who resonates. Chrysa, eerily relaxed in her adulthood, actually hides a cauldron of drama in her past. The daughter of the richest family in town, she had eloped with a poor but dreamy young villager who had softened her heart after a kiss-on-the-lips ambush outside of church. The kiss scandalized her family, which in retaliation had arranged for her to marry a lawyer. But the lawyer rapes her before their wedding day, leaving her, in one powerful scene, to soak her violated body in a bath and weep with rage. She runs away and marries the man she loves, but doesn’t tell him what happened. Denis moves between the mother-daughter narratives by labeling Chrysa’s story as the «ancient era» and Sunday’s story as the «current era,» but with limited success. Chrysa’s story is much more compelling, so Sunday’s bisecting tale only detracts from it. In the ancient era, the jagged language sparkles with beautiful riffs like «love is boiling hot, velvety red and infinitely massive,» adding sizzle to the palette of weirdly tender characters and pastoral scenes. But in Sunday’s story, the words are often bombastic, the sentences as darkly incomprehensible as Sunday herself. Sunday attributes her loose, often confounding commentary to her English, which she makes clear is not her first language. «The way I like to think of it is like this: I got one tongue working double shifts, English being the night one, Greek the day,» she says. «In my opinion, things should be written as they have been thought and happened, and if they happened in a secondhand/second tongue code then let them be in that code, don’t manipulate them ’cause they end up losing their magical nature and become too damn rational.» Despite the Borges reference in that explanation, its meaning is more muddled than magical. That’s a problem throughout Sunday’s story, despite efforts by Denis, who is clearly an emerging experimentalist of both language and lore. Inventive wordplay and narrative structure can enliven a familiar story, especially if it’s told through a young voice, but the process takes considerable skill. Consider the much-copied American writer Dave Eggers, who recast a story of family loss and survival into an outrageous but utterly poignant tale of brotherly love in «A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.» Or the Vietnamese-American poet le thi diem thuy, whose autobiographical novel «The Gangster We Are All Looking For» explores the cultural isolation of a refugee girl in America through the ghosts of her past. Both writers used young narrators with messy lives, but these narrators were nuanced – both flawed and tender, impetuous and thoughtful, rebellious and anxious. Sunday is not as likable. She is cunning and sometimes funny, but she is also rough, judgmental and foul-mouthed to the point of being boring. She «jumps» – the literal translation of the Greek slang for fornicate – and smokes and gossips with her friends, but she never seems to enjoy any of it, or anything at all. Like many young Greeks today, her life is static and frustrating; she is trapped in a world both stubbornly ensconced in stony old sensibilities and wildly trying to embrace the fluidity of modern life. This is fascinating territory, even if Denis, who shows true promise, does not illuminate it in this book. Here’s hoping that her next novel will do just that.

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