Over the past year or two we’ve seen a flurry of book titles containing the names of women. These often fall into the quirky and offbeat or cosy categories. The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou is not one of them. Quite the contrary.
In 1954, a Greek Cypriot grandmother named Zina Pavlou is in London to visit her son. The 53-year-old Zina hasn’t seen Michalis in 12 years, nor has she had the chance to meet her two young grandchildren or her German daughter-in-law, Hedy. Zina is understandably overjoyed when her son finally sends for her – even if it is only to be an unpaid housekeeper.
Initially the arrangement works well. Zina is a hard worker who doesn’t mind standing in for her supposedly fragile daughter-in-law, even if she’s not allowed to spend time with her grandchildren. However, the two women soon clash over religion and child rearing. Michalis asks his mother to leave for a few days in order to keep the peace. When Zina returns, she does her best to keep to herself and avoid Hedy, but her daughter-in-law is adamant that she should return to Cyprus. A day later, Hedy is found dead in the couple’s backyard, strangled and set alight. A witness saw Zina feeding the fire her daughter-in-law was partially submerged in. Zina denies being the murderer. Who, though, is going to believe a poor, illiterate Greek woman who is unable to speak any English?
Enter Eva Georgiou, who has been a translator for the Metropolitan Police for the past five years. She is also an immigrant and Zina’s only lifeline. She has translated for many criminals, including robbers, thugs and con artists, but never a murderer. Eva soon becomes engrossed in Zina’s case, visits her every day at Holloway Prison and tries to make sense of her convoluted story. Eva’s obsession with helping Zina does not bode well for her already precarious marriage with Jimmy. It’s been a year since they lost their baby, and they’re still struggling to recover.
Through Eva and Zina’s conversations the reader has to piece together fragments of information about the murder as well as Zina’s tragic life story. The narrative jumps between 1954 and the months leading up to Hedy’s death, revealing what happened between the mother and daughter-in-law. Zina claimed to be a well-respected woman in her village, but despite her fervent requests for family members to testify at her trial, they all abandon her when she most needs them.
Zina, convinced of her innocence, is adamant that she won’t be convicted. But time is rapidly running out and we feel a tangible a sense of urgency when the possibility of a death sentence looms. As a result, there is a claustrophobic feeling of melancholy and hopelessness, as well as sympathy for a woman who is discriminated against because of her nationality and social status – a woman of ‘peasant stock’.
Author Eleni Kyriacou is the daughter of Greek immigrants and this novel captures her interest in what they experienced, adding the intrigue of Zina’s story. She employs two variables to keep us on our toes. We don’t know whether Zina is innocent or guilty, and we also don’t know if she is in her right mind. Her erratic behaviour suggests that insanity is a possibility, but the doctors who examine her are not convinced. How trustworthy is Zina as a narrator, and how sound is Eva’s judgement? As the story unfolds, these are the questions flitting through your mind. Here, it’s difficult to distinguish between what is clearly right and wrong and what drives someone to take an apparently extreme measure.
The fact that The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou is based on the true story of Hella Dorothea Christofis adds to the shock factor. Aside from a compelling plot it also focuses on the Greek diaspora in London at the time. The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou is a layered read that deals with morality and immigration within the framework of a well-delivered story.
Aria & Aries Fiction
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
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