By Kiran Bhat
Ruth Padel’s second novel Daughters of the Labyrinth (Corsair, London, 2021) sojourns onto the island of Crete through the eyes of a British woman of Greek ancestry named Ri. Ri has returned to Crete in a bid to make sense of the narrative which pushed her family towards the United Kingdom, and to understand her own space in relation to not only those two countries, but the other places which inspire her throughout the world. Ri’s perspective is enhanced through the lush command of language Padel employs while telling her story. This is no surprise given that Ruth Padel is a well acclaimed and admired poet, but the effortless beauty of the prose hits the moment we open the book.
Yellow bananas. Custard yellow, in a blue plastic crate the colour of evening sky. Each skin has its own pattern of black streak but in this dim light they have a mysterious blush, a kind of inner gold.
Ri’s reflection on the bananas in the Afghan grocer in her town of London is slight, minute, and does unimaginable things with language. The colours bounce off and around each other, creating so many dazzles for the eye to follow that it is hard to focus on one specific image. And yet in this array there is also a unity; in the diversity of the prism, there is the sense of something coming together. There is a vibrancy, but there is also a melancholy. This gets anchored in the next paragraph in which Padel remarks, ‘Everything reminds me of David,’ her deceased partner, and she starts to witness post-Brexit micro-aggressions against the Afghani immigrants of the grocer. This vibrantly written paragraph is not merely an attempt for Padel to show off her skills as a poet. It is her building immersion into Ri’s worlds and her situations, using poetry in prose form.
Various characters beyond Ri are placed in the novel. Ri is often in conversation with her friend Nashita, for example, who is an Indian living in the UK. Padel takes advantage of these interactions, often on social media or email, to introduce an Indian flavour to the novel; and Ri often makes reflections on her dreams to live in Mumbai, as well as her disjointed impressions of the Modi government.
Ri’s family is also of great importance. Flashbacks from the past chronicle the experiences of Papa and Mama, who are understood to be Ri’s parents, interposed into Ri’s narrative in random chapters, detailing life from the 1940s to the 1960s. These narrative breaks allow for Padel to touch on and comment on the Greek Civil War, and the effect that it had on Greek immigrants to the United Kingdom. Padel also experiments in these chapters, introducing stream-of-consciousness interruptions to the more traditional prose. As with the lines of poetry dashing in Padel’s paragraphs, these stream-of-consciousness sections are not merely for show.
the soldiers laugh like excited boys, they thump people with
their guns, they poke blind kyria anna who stumbles, she does
not know who they are and father takes her arm, he has his
other arm round mother
They highlight the terseness and casualness of violence to incredible effect.
The very last chapter of the novel focuses on COVID, which has forced Ri back to the UK and has dashed her plans to move to Mumbai. While it might be too early (and oddly in vogue with the moment) to attempt to historise the COVID pandemic, Padel’s reflections are exceptionally insightful, particularly as she links the likeness of the pandemic to the atrocities of the 20th century. Whether it is through great bloodshed or collective suffering, it takes a tragedy to wake us out of the self-importance we bestow to our daily lives, to remember ‘how quickly life can fall apart.’ But it is in this abandon and in this loss that we remember that which is important to us, such as family, and our home, and the simple pleasures of everyday existence.
Daughters of the Labyrinth is an ode to the beauty of Greece and the Greek condition, clearly written by a foreigner. The fact that the novel employs a very British perspective to tell its story does not detract from the book. The novel seems well posed to inform readers who have very little personal stake in Greece or its history to take an interest in its issues, and the novel is written with such poetic language that any reader who reads to be stunned on the sentence level will find much to savour. Daughters of the Labyrinth, Padel is, in other words, much more than a British novel set in Greece.
Padel has written a book on the dissonance and distance humans create between invented notions of race and nation, and how they take shape over time. She has written a canto on behalf of ideals of harmony and unity despite the utter vastness of human difference.
Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American polyglot, traveller, and author. He is primarily known the author of the English-language story cycle, We of the Forsaken World (Iguana Books, 2020), but has published four books in four other languages, and has had his writing published at The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, 3:AM Magazine, The Rumpus, be:longing, Kitaab, SOFTBLOW, The Eco Theo Review, The Bengaluru Review, The Chakkar, and several other places. He has been to 140 countries, bases himself in 25 places across the globe, and speaks twelve languages. He currently lives in Johannesburg.