This was one of several books on my 20 Books of Summer list this year that I didn’t have time to read before the September deadline, but if I’d know how much I was going to love it I would have made it a priority. It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year and probably the most moving.
The novel opens in Greece in 2016 and introduces us to an elderly woman called Themis, whose family have gathered in her Athens apartment to celebrate her birthday. Aware of how little the younger generations know about their country’s history, she decides to share her life story with her two favourite grandchildren, Nikos and Popi. It seems as though almost every book I pick up recently is set in multiple time periods and, to be honest, I’m getting a bit bored with that format, but in this case the framing story only forms the beginning and end of the book – the bulk of the novel is set in the past, which makes it easier to become fully immersed in the story Themis is telling.
And what a fascinating story it is, beginning in the 1930s and taking us through the Axis occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the rise of communism and the Civil War that followed, the political crisis that led to a military junta taking control of the country and then the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of a more democratic society, bringing us right up to the present day. As I probably knew even less about 20th century Greek history than Nikos and Popi at the start of the novel, I found that I was learning a lot from the book, as well as being gripped by the personal stories of Themis and her family.
After their father leaves for America and their mother suffers a nervous breakdown, Themis and her three siblings are raised by their beloved grandmother. As they each grow up to hold different political opinions, a heated discussion takes place every evening when the family sit down around their large mahogany dining table. Themis and her brother Panos want to free Greece from German occupation and later, as their views move further to the left, they both decide to join the Communist army. Meanwhile, her eldest brother Thanasis and sister Margarita are much more right wing, believing that Nazi Germany is Greece’s friend and that the Communists are the dangerous ones.
One of the things I liked about the novel is that, although we naturally find ourselves siding with Themis as the main protagonist, the whole subject of political division and difference is treated with balance and sensitivity. We see that Thanasis and Margarita, despite standing for everything Themis dislikes, do still have some good qualities, while Panos and Themis find themselves doing some questionable things in the name of their own beliefs. The message I took away from the book is that violence, destruction and killing can never be justified, no matter how much someone may try to tell themselves they’re doing it for the right reasons.
I was struck by this quote which I think feels very relevant to today’s world as well as to 1940s Athens:
People seemed to be losing their humanity. The schism that existed between left and right had been allowed to widen, the polarisation to deepen, and now the city was paying the consequences.
Those Who Are Loved is a powerful, emotional story. So far the only other Victoria Hislop book I’ve read is The Sunrise, which I enjoyed, but found quite uneven. This one is a much stronger book, in my opinion, and held my interest from beginning to end. I do have a copy of The Thread, which will be the next one I read and also set in 20th century Greece.
Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.