Review written by Felicity Fanjoy. Reprinted from her monthly book column in the Waaskimaashtaau Newsmagazine
Thanks to Felicity for her permission to share it here!
ADVENTURES IN READING:
THE WATER AND THE WINE by Tamar Hodes
by Felicity Fanjoy
Many, many years ago, I spent six months in Greece, nearly half of that on a small steep picturesque island called Hydra. The main village of ancient whitewashed houses rose up so precipitously from the pretty horseshoe-shaped harbour that most of its cobbled streets turned into stairs at certain points and could only be negotiated on foot or by donkey. There were no cars or bikes on the island, engendering a slow and quiet pace of life. It took over three hours to get to Hydra by ferry from Piraeus, the bustling port of Athens, and that journey allowed travellers to gradually adjust from the tempo of a crowded modern city to the almost-medieval rhythm of the island.
Hydra’s special beauty attracted the rich and famous who would moor their yachts in the harbour and come ashore for a few hours to stroll along the waterfront and pause for a drink or a meal at one of the open-air portside cafés. You might even spot Jackie Onassis or Richard Burton at a nearby table in your favourite taverna.
However, higher up the hillsides, there were still houses that could be bought or rented for modest amounts, and these attracted a small international community of artists, writers and musicians. The most famous among them (for us as Canadians) was Leonard Cohen who wrote many of his best-known early works, including “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long Marianne”, in the house he had purchased when he was still an unrecognized talent.
I got to know him (and Marianne) while I was there so, needless to say, I was quite interested when a recent book was published about that group of artists and writers on Hydra. THE WATER AND THE WINE by Tamar Hodes is set in the early Sixties when her family lived there for a year. That was about a decade before I was on the island, but a number of the characters in her book were people that I met there ten years later.
The thing is, this is not a book of memoirs nor is it a biography. It is fiction. And it is a kind of writing that I do not feel at ease with. Historical fiction about people long departed is fine. It can bring to life a bygone era, provide insight into historical events and illuminate historical figures. But a book like this one about people still living or just recently dead feels like a real invasion of privacy (most especially when the author is describing – over and over – scenes of people I actually knew making love!)
It is one thing to research and interview people, and then write informed and honest profiles of them, but to imagine their internal thoughts, private conversations and most intimate moments seems unforgivably presumptuous to me.
If Hodes had truly fictionalized this book by changing the names of all the characters, that would have been fine. I could then accept that this was purely a work of imagination inspired by real people. But it appears that the only characters whose names she changed were the members of her own family. This makes me suspect that she was just trying to cash in by name-dropping and gossiping about her more famous neighbours.
The way that she portrays her own “fictional” family is a little odd, too. The young girl (presumably herself) seems sensitive and loving, but her brother is pictured as cold and distant, barely uttering a word throughout the entire book, and her parents, well… I expect that most of us don’t even like to think of our parents having sex lives at all, let alone describing their conjugal encounters for the world to read!
What I liked best about this book was her descriptions of Hydra itself, of familiar shops and cafés, of the vegetation, birds and animals. These woke up memories of an enchanted time in a magical place for me.
But I was shocked to learn in the author profile that Tamar Hodes was an English teacher for 33 years. I pity her students because her work is spattered with grammatical errors (one glaring example is when she says “there was fresh vegetables” instead of “there were fresh vegetables”,) and her word choices were sometimes decidedly odd. For instance, she described a dessert as sitting “smugly” in its syrup. How on earth can food be smug? And what would it be smug about anyway when on the verge of being eaten? It felt as though this book was rushed into print without proper proofreading or editing.
Another criticism I have is that Hodes got some things purely wrong. She implies at the end of her book that all these foreign writers and artists simply scattered at the end of that year, never to return again. Not true. Also, she portrays Marianne, whom I knew as a strong and vibrant personality, as a very beautiful but wishy-washy and constantly self-doubting woman. How sad to see her described this way.
Despite all its faults, I have to confess that I read THE WATER AND THE WINE avidly, but that was undoubtedly due to my own nostalgia for people and a place that I once knew rather than for the quality of the writing.