The Greeks Have A Word For It by Barry Unsworth

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When I was 16 I told my mum I liked Lion Bars.  I mentioned it once, you understand, as a throw away remark in a casual conversation.  My mum, though, treated my ephemeral preference as if Moses had descended from the Mount of Olives bearing a stone tablet inscribed ‘Though Shalt Bestow on Thy Teenage Daughter a Daily Lion Bar.’  For a week, I ate a Lion Bar each day, gratefully at first, then dutifully, then reluctantly; then I stopped.  She carried on buying them regardless, stashing the uneaten bars in the bread bin ‘for later’.  By this stage the sight of a wrapper was beginning making me nauseous, so later never came.  The bread-bin got so full of Lion Bars there was no room for bread.  When I begged her to stop, she was nonplussed. Why say I liked them?

Fast-forward 30 years and I’m telling my husband I like Barry Unsworth.  Now my husband likes to ‘do’ an author by reading everything they’ve ever written (never to re-read it) then move on to another – like my mum, it’s all or nothing – whereas I like to dip in and out of different authors and re-read favourite books, or ‘bits’ of book, so I really should have known better. The Greeks Have a Word For It is, I think, Unsworth’s second published novel (after The Partnership, which I reviewed in my November 2011 blog).  Currently out of print, my husband (bless him) tracked down a used copy on Amazon.

Kennedy, an English chancer, and Mitsos, a young Greek, arrive in Athens on the same boat.  Mitsos tells Kennedy, ‘Athens is like a village…We shall be sure to meet.’  And they do, with tragic consequences.

I can see why this book is no longer in print.  While there is much to appreciate here (form, prose, characterisation) it is difficult to care about either Kennedy or Mitsos, and so although it is beautifully written, it is ultimately emotionally unsatisfying.  You might want to give it a go if, like me, you’re an Unsworth fan (and can track down a copy) but if you’re new to Unsworth, better try Morality Play, Losing Nelson, Land of Marvels, or the Booker prize winning Sacred Hunger.

* Not for me but worth trying


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