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.
I read this fantastic read lying in the hot sun on the jetty at Cettia, looking across the sea towards the Greek islands of Rhodea & Symi and this book provided me with much food for thought about this turbulent time in Greek history.
The Black Earth is a fascinating and immersive read, describing the lives of Greek singer, Zoe Valavani and British Officer, Lieutenant Tom Collyer, and how their trajectories criss-cross as war tears the country apart. It is a time period that I don’t really know that much about and I love this kind of novel, where I finish it and end up on Google for hours, researching all of the events in the book and looking at maps and photos of the real settings and events that have been portrayed in its pages.
Kazan’s novel begins in 1922 where we meet Zoe who is attempting to escape from Turkey with her parents on their yacht. Tragedy strikes and Zoe is left clinging to the shattered wreck of their beloved boat after a collision robs her of her parents and leaves her alone in Piraeus. This is her first encounter with Tom, but little does she know the way that fate will throw them together as the war rages on around them. I loved the character of Zoe and I found it easy to connect with her grit and determination as she battles to overcome the many obstacles that she has to endure.
If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I really love a novel where you explore events from more than one perspective. I think that Kazan is equally skilled at portraying the characters of Tom and Zoe and their characters both engage the reader as they spring to life off the page. Kazan paints a vivid portrait of their struggles to survive in a dangerous and unpredictable time in history. I hate including spoilers so all I’ll say is that Zoe’s talent as a singer makes her stand out, in a historical period where drawing attention to yourself is a risky proposition and there are several tense moments when your heart will definitely be in your mouth.
Tom’s life of ease and privilege before the war has ill-prepared him for the privations and horrors that he will have to endure in Greece – however, he refuses to let the terrifying sights that he has to endure to harden or coarsen him and he remains a sensitive and gentlemanly character throughout the novel. His letters allow us a real insight into his nature and this was a favourite part of the novel for me. Little did he know all those years ago that his fleeting encounter with Zoe would have the ramifications that they do as an adult and I loved hearing his thoughts and reflections on the life he hopes to have when the war is finally over and I really felt that this allowed me to connect with him just as much as Zoe, which is rare for a book told in dual perspective.
The way that Kazan brings the horror and anguish so vividly to life on the page made me totally lose myself in this fantastic read. I couldn’t tear myself away from the suffering that had to be endured and even though Kazan pulls no punches, his description is moving rather than disturbing as he opens your eyes to an aspect of the war that you might not know very much about. The fact that he has a family connection with these events lends The Black Earth an added poignancy and made me remember that even though this is a novel, the stories it tells were very much a reality for thousands of Greeks who found themselves trapped in a conflict that they were powerless to do anything about.
If you love a historical read that brings moral dilemmas vividly to life and enjoy being totally immersed in a powerful and vivid narrative then you’ll love The Black Earth. It’s a powerful story and I found myself quite emotional as it drew to a close, knowing as I did that even though Tom and Zoe were fictional characters, they’d really lived for me whilst I was lost in the book. I will definitely look out for more from Philip Kazan as the balance of historical detail, wonderful characterisation and emotional punch was a winning combination for me.
I would like to thank Anne Cater for inviting me to participate in the blog tour – I think that The Black Earth looks fabulous in my #OnTheShelfie and I’ll definitely be looking out for the other blog posts to see what my fellow bloggers thought of this emotional and memorable tale.
Writer on the Shelf
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