The Black Earth by Philip Kazan Allison and Busby April 19th 2018
1922. When the Turkish Army occupies Smyrna, Zoe Haggitiris escapes with her family only to lose everything. Alone in a sea of desperate strangers, her life is touched, for a moment, by a young English boy, Tom Collyer, also lost, before the compassion of a stranger leads her into a new life. Years later when war breaks out, Tom finds himself in Greece and in the chaos of the British retreat, fate will lead him back to Zoe. But he will discover that the war will not end so easily for either of them.
So many novels base themselves in the horrors of World War II. We read of the French occupation, the concentration camps and the blitz, but very little is written of what happened to the people of Greece and the hardship they had to endure.
The Black Earth changes all that, and I was absolutely fascinated. Much of the story is told though the eyes of Zoe and Tom, two characters who epitomise their generation, brave, strong, with an inbuilt instinct for survival.
Kazan took us back to 1922 where he introduced us to Zoe as she flees Turkey with her parents aboard their family yacht. A collision with a battleship finds Zoe clinging to the wreckage of the boat as her father and mother disappear. Alone in the port of Piraeus she fleetingly meets Tom not quite realising the significance of their encounter and so began their story.
Told in alternating perspective, Kazan drew me into their stories. Both faced hardships and trauma but Zoe’s story in particular was one I found poignant and evocative. Kazan brilliantly wrote of the hardships that she faced, first as a refugee and then as a young woman in a country occupied by the Germans. As her life became harder so Kazan peeled back another layer of her character, revealing a woman with a huge capacity for love, forgiveness and tolerance. Yet she was also a woman who had a wonderful talent as a singer adding brightness and happiness to a novel that could have become mired in the sadness and horrors that war brings.
Tom’s story is so far removed from Zoe’s, a boy from a wealthy family background, a loving mother but a difficult relationship with his father. His father a product of the Great War, his behaviour his way of coping, yet underneath you just knew that he was immensely proud of Tom’s role in the war, just incapable of showing it. Tom is no hero, waving a gun around shooting numerous enemy soldiers, Tom’s war is much deeper than that and that is what I liked so much about his character. Tom is a thinker, a man with a conscience, a man who won’t let others down and that is what drives him to find Zoe, no matter how hard that journey might be. What interested me most was Tom’s role as a war artist and his amazing ability to capture what he saw. I felt that this was his way to cope with the war, to take the horrific sights out of his head and put them onto paper, somehow leaving them behind before moving on to his next location.
The real triumph of The Black Earth is its historical detail. What Kazan so skillfully achieves is the use of Tom and Zoe as conduits of history, Tom the British involvement, Zoe the traumas of the Greek people. I felt Kazan achieved the perfect balance, with detail that never drowned out Zoe and Tom’s story, but enhanced it and brought it to life.
The imagery Kazan conjured I found at times brutal and shocking, yet there were also moments of great tenderness and happiness. I could sense the emotion of the characters and at some points their desperation, and the last few pages will live in my mind for a long time to come.
It is a novel that showcases the capacity for human compassion, hope and above all love, love that can transcend and sustain whatever life may throw at us.
I know from reading a little of Philip Kazan’s background that the events he so eloquently describes have a deeply personal connection to him and that is why this novel is such a triumph. You just know that is heart and soul is in the pages of the novel and his Grandfather would have been so proud of what he has achieved.
I would like to thank Allen and Busby, and Emma Finnegan for a proof copy to read and review and as always my thanks to Anne Cater for inviting mybookishblogspot to participate in the blogtour
About the author
PHILIP KAZAN was born in London and grew-up on Dartmoor. He is the author of two previous novels set in fifteenth-century Florence and the Petroc series following a thirteenth-century adventurer. After living in New York and Vermont, Philip is back on the edge of Dartmoor with his wife and three children.
Follow him on Twitter: @pipkazan
Author’s Website: philipkazan.wordpress.com
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