My Last Lament: Book summary and reviews of My Last Lament by James William Brown

My Last Lament

by James William Brown

My Last Lament by James William Brown X
My Last Lament by James William Brown
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  • Published in USA  Apr 2017
    352 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman's story of her own - and her nation's - epic struggle in the aftermath of World War II.

Aliki is one of the last of her kind, a lamenter who mourns and celebrates the passing of life. She is part of an evolving Greece, one moving steadily away from its rural traditions. To capture the fading folk art of lamenting, an American researcher asks Aliki to record her laments, but in response, Aliki sings her own story...

It begins in a village in northeast Greece, where Aliki witnesses the occupying Nazi soldiers execute her father for stealing squash. Taken in by her friend Takis's mother, Aliki is joined by a Jewish refugee and her son, Stelios. When the village is torched and its people massacred, Aliki, Takis and Stelios are able to escape just as the war is ending.

Fleeing across the chaotic landscape of a post-war Greece, the three become a makeshift family. They're bound by friendship and grief, but torn apart by betrayal, madness and heartbreak.

Through Aliki's powerful voice, an unforgettable one that blends light and dark with wry humor, My Last Lament delivers a fitting eulogy to a way of life and provides a vivid portrait of a timeless Greek woman, whose story of love and loss is an eternal one.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Fans of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us will appreciate the complex and intertwined story of three youths haunted by secrets and the tragedy of war." - Library Journal

"Events come thick and fast - guerilla attacks, abduction, imprisonment, death - but the restless plot, shifting locations, and heaping up of suffering become overwhelming, fragmenting the overall impact. A respectful but hectic tale of national collapse and grief that falls short of epic emotional resonance." - Kirkus

"A remarkable accomplishment, a long and circuitous tale of three young people, orphaned by WWII in Greece, and their struggles to survive the brutal and chaotic aftermath - a real Greek tragedy, full of wit, pathos, and poetry. I admit that I wept at the last page, and I thought, Oh, I reckon this must be catharsis!" - Dennis McFarland, author of Nostalgia 

"A Greek epic in its own right, My Last Lament is the story of a nation trying to live up to its past while struggling to come to terms with its present, and of the indomitable people surviving that struggle. Aliki is a vivid and fully-realized heroine, by turns both fragile and formidable, and her story is one that will keep readers quickly turning the pages even as they linger over Brown's lovely language. My Last Lament is a book I will never forget." - Alyssa Palombo, author of The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

"James William Brown's brilliance and artistry as a storyteller woos, fascinates and utterly devastates in My Last Lament. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See, you will devour this novel; a heart-rending World War II story you've never heard and won't soon forget." - Susan Meissner, author of The Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean

"This is an astonishing novel, an imaginative feat of epic proportions. I was gripped from the first line. These characters! This story! Here is war and joy and terror and love and death and humor all mixed up, just as in life. I loved My Last Lament so much I kept shoving it in people's faces, saying, 'This book! You have to read this book!'" - Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride

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Reader Reviews

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Diane T. (Slingerlands, NY)

My Last Lament
You are immediately drawn into "My Last Lament" by the main character, Aliki, as she recounts her life in a small Greek village during the last days of the German occupation of WW II and the ensuing Greek Civil War. As the story unfolds, she takes us on a journey of growing up amid the remains of a war that not only devastated her homeland but changed her personal life in ways that would impact her and her family forever.

The agony that families endured during the Civil War in Greece is so vividly described by the author that you are caught up in the treachery that pitted brother against brother. Aliki's family is not immune to this and we witness her valiant effort to keep the family together at all costs. "Stelios once said that our stories never finish. They just get braided with those of others into some larger strand that only later generations can understand." This is Aliki's last lament.

Betty T. (Warner Robins, GA)

Beautiful Writing
This book was a true joy to read. It was beautifully written, with interesting characters and some little known Greek history. Being Jewish I have heard about the decimation of the Jews in Thessalonica and Rhodes. While the main character Aliki is not Jewish, another major character Stelios is. The book address what happened to the Jews and life on the islands after the Nazis were defeated. Alik, is the last professional lamenter – one who expresses grief – in her village. Lamenters were like mediums through whom the deceased's life is expressed at wakes. Aliki was also frequently visited by the dead.

The story – of her own life - is told by Aliki via cassette tapes she is recording for a Greek-American scholar who is doing research on lament practices. Aliki tells of life in her little village under German occupation. When young Aliki is left orphaned she is taken in by Chrysoula, her friend Takis's mother. Chrysoula also provided shelter for a Jewish woman named Sophie and her son Stelios.

Aliki, 17 years old, is caught in a love triangle involving her friend Takis (10 years old) and Stelios (nearer Aliki's age). While young they all had to mature quickly, witnessing the execution of family members and other villagers. Like many countries in Europe, when WWII was over the survivors then had to deal with civil wars.

A form of entertainment at the time was the shadow theatre. I knew shadow puppetry was an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment in China, but I was not aware that it was used in Europe. A bit of the history of this art is given early on in the book. Stelios is quite proficient in it.

Aliki laments on the tragedies they lived through, the "what-if's" that could have resulted in a totally different outcome, the ironies that of life, and the tarnishing of her home country.

The book is slow reading but well worth it. I loved the characters and had an emotional investment in them. There was so much heartbreak, so many regrets, yet much courage.

Carol T. (Ankeny, IA)

Like listening to a story
I know my review title seems a little silly since this is a novel, which makes it, by definition, a story. However, it is so well-written that I felt like I was listening to Aliki (the lamenter) tell her story - she drew me in and I didn't want to put it down.

Cheryl P. (Lebanon, PA)

My Last Lament
A beautiful written story about young love, devotion, heart-break, and courage while trying to survive in a country torn apart by war. I was wrapped up in all three of the main characters and how they learned to survive and depend on each other. There was no pause in this story it flowed effortlessly. It was so hard to put down because you were right there in the story shadowing this orphaned family.

Sandra H. (St. Cloud, MN)

War's Human Tragedy
Set in Greece at the end of WWII, this fascinating novel pulled me into the lives of the peasants struggling to survive after the Germans have left leaving left them bereft and penniless. Many years later, Aliki, perhaps the last "lamenter" (one who sings a eulogy for the dead) is asked to make a record of the lost art of lamenting. However, Aliki tells her own story of that terrible time, of Stelios, a young puppeteer and the orphan Taki of their struggles and those of their fellow Greeks. The book becomes a lament for the life and traditions and human tragedies inflicted on and by the Greeks who survived this terrible time.
We are all familiar with the stories of WWII in Europe, of the Jews sent to death camps and the Nazi cruelties but this book takes us to a country we have read little about. I strongly recommend the book for book groups.

Eileen C. (New York, NY)

Love in the time of terror
Set during a difficult time in Greece's history, Brown's engrossing novel explores important questions about love, family, and what happens to our relationships and sense of self during times of strife and terror. It is about resilience and what kind of power individuals retain even when they are essential powerless. Aliki's tale is full of humor and pathos, regret and understanding. Highly recommended.

...15 more reader reviews

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Author Information

James William Brown Author Biography

James William Brown is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford, and has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, Mass. He lived and taught in Greece for 10 years, and previously worked as the director of editorial programs for various textbook companies. Now retired, Brown lives with his wife in the Boston area. My Last Lament is his second novel, after Blood Dance.

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