Book Review: Seraphina's Song by Kathryn Gauci
By Kathryn Gauci
“If I knew then, dear reader, what I know now, I should have turned on my heels and left. But I stood transfixed on the beautiful image of Seraphina. In that moment my fate was sealed.”
A refugee who escapes Smyrna in 1922 disguised as an old woman. Alienated and plagued by remorse, he spirals into poverty and seeks solace in the hashish dens of Piraeus.
When he can go no lower, opportunity knocks, and Dionysos’ meets Aleko, an expert bouzouki player, recognising a rare musical talent, Aleko offers to teach him to play.
But Dionysos’ hope for a better life unravels when he meets Seraphina — the singer with the voice of a nightingale. From that moment his life is in danger and there is no going back.
"It is strange how we human beings are attracted to the things which are no good for us…"
It wasn't meant to be like this. My life was planned. I would take over my father's business and marry Rosa. But then the army of the Hellenes were defeated, and the governor of Smyrna fled, leaving us at the mercy of the Turks, and all of my dreams, all of my plans, quickly evaporated into nothing.
I thought I had died that day, along with my parents. I thought I was already dead when I reached Piraeus, but little did I know what the future had in store for me. Before I died, I had to fall in love...
From the depths of despairing poverty to the ultimate sacrifice, Seraphina's Song by Kathryn Gauci is the powerfully emotional account of a refugee who dared to love where he should not.
With a tragic sense of foreshadowing, this novel opens on a rubbish heap — a place where the desperately poor rummage in the hope of finding coins, or something useful to salvage. It is also where the dead, who had met with an unfortunate end, are left to the mercy of the dogs and the flies and the filth. It is where things are thrown away, including a life that had promised so very much. This destitute abode is a fitting place to start a novel about a man who saw the sun but wanted more — Dionysos Mavroulis wanted the stars as well.
With an enthralling sense of time and place, Gauci has presented her readers with an utterly irresistible novel. This is the kind of book that grabs the reader from the opening sentence and does not let go until that final full stop. It is a story that is hauntingly beautiful. This compelling, page-turning narrative is, at times, profoundly unsettling as the blade draws ever nearer to the brave protagonist's throat. Although Gauci prepares her readers for the death of the protagonist from the opening page, when it happens — how it happens — still comes as a tremendous shock, so be prepared and have a box of tissues close at hand.
The hero of this desperate tragedy is Dionysos Mavroulis. Gauci depicts an unlikely hero in Dionysos, for he is nothing. He is no one. A coward, some might say, who disguised himself as an old woman so he could board the boat with the other refugees. Racked with grief and guilt, Dionysos is a character seemingly without hope, but his story is one of redemption, discovery, friendship, happiness, and love. I absolutely adored Dionysos. When his life spirals out of control, it is music that saves his soul. And when he wants to say things that cannot be said, he lets his music talk for him. Everything he has experienced, everything he has ever felt, he expresses when he picks up a dead man's bouzouki. The joy his music brings to other people is a stark contrast to the torment of his soul. Dionysos was a character that I grew to adore. His honesty, his passion, his hunger for something more than he had, made him incredibly endearing and it reminds the reader that buried deep inside of us all is something that cannot be denied, no matter what the consequences.
The heroine of this tale is Seraphina. Seraphina is like an avalanche — beautiful to look at, but once she has you in her sights, she is impossible to outrun. With a voice that can out carol the nightingale and a body that tempts a man to sin, Seraphina draws men towards her like bees to a honeypot. However, interestingly, it is not her body, nor her voice, that first captures Dionysos' attention, but her eyes — eyes that remind him of his past love. Dionysos approached this forbidden relationship with Seraphina with the strength of a dying man's last confession. The unsurmountable odds stacked against the lovers is no deterrent, they must be together, or Dionysos will surely die. Seraphina's plight is as desperate as Dionysos', and when she is with him, Seraphina dares to dream of a different future. Seraphina's backstory is one of choice. She had a choice between abject poverty and free will. She chose to sacrifice her free will. But in doing so, she loses something of herself, something which she only finds again in Dionysos' arms. I thought Seraphina's portrayal was sublime. I enjoyed reading about her and, although she knows how this could end for Dionysos, she dares to believe in his promises.
For a story about suffering, Gauci's careful use of symbols to depict death should come as no surprise. The fact that Dionysos has to wear a dead man's clothes, and a dead man's shoes, is unsurprising, considering his situation, but he also takes up a dead man's journey and follows in his footsteps to the same catastrophic fate. I thought Gauci's very carefully crafted word building and her use of both symbols and motifs as well, for that matter, gave this book a strong foundation in which to build this hauntingly beautiful story upon.
The historical detail in this book is poetically alluring, which seems a strange thing to say when most of the story happens in the poverty-stricken slums of Piraeus, but it is true. Gauci has depicted not only the suffering but also the richness of life in the face of death and despair. Gauci has to be commended for her depiction of this era in all its suffering and deprivation. I thought the historical backdrop to this story was superbly executed. Bravo Ms Gauci. Bravo, indeed.
Seraphina's Song by Kathryn Gauci is the kind of book that wraps around your soul and leaves an impression. It is a story that is as impressive as it is brilliant. If you love quality Historical Fiction, then this book should definitely be on your 'to-read' list!
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Kathryn Gauci was born in Leicestershire, England, and studied textile design at Loughborough College of Art and later at Kidderminster College of Art and Design where she specialised in carpet design and technology. After graduating, Kathryn spent a year in Vienna, Austria before moving to Greece where she worked as a carpet designer in Athens for six years. There followed another brief period in New Zealand before eventually settling in Melbourne, Australia.
Before turning to writing full-time, Kathryn ran her own textile design studio in Melbourne for over fifteen years, work which she enjoyed tremendously as it allowed her the luxury of travelling worldwide, often taking her off the beaten track and exploring other cultures. The Embroiderer is her first novel; a culmination of those wonderful years of design and travel, and especially of those glorious years in her youth living and working in Greece – a place that she is proud to call her spiritual home.
Her second novel, Conspiracy of Lies, is set in France during WWII. It is based on the stories of real life agents in the service of the Special Operations Executive and The Resistance under Nazi occupied Europe. To put one’s life on the line for your country in the pursuit of freedom took immense courage and many never survived. Kathryn’s interest in WWII started when she lived in Vienna and has continued ever since. She is a regular visitor to France and has spent time in several of the areas in which this novel is set.