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The Madness of Grief by Panayotis Cacoyannis, reviewed by Casey Dorman

To say that Panayotis Cacoyannis’ characters, in whichever of his books one is reading, are not whom they first appear to be, is as much of an understatement as saying that Donald Trump sometimes stretches the truth. This is no less true of the characters in his latest novel, The Madness of Grief. The story is a coming-of-age tale told by the protagonist, 16 year old Jane Hareman. It is a recollection, with the immediacy of a current account, perhaps triggered by the taste of a Black Forest Gateau, reminding us of Proust’s Madeline Cake-inspired return to the past.

The plot is simple, if circuitous. At the moment of a young girl’s tentative sexual awakening, a series of events reveals truths about her father, his lover, her aunt and the boy with whom she is enamored. The deceptions that have hidden many of these truths are mostly a reaction to the death of her mother, ten years earlier. But, as each façade is removed, the underlying reality becomes less certain and more mysterious, culminating in answers only in an epilogue-like chapter occurring fifteen years later.

The events cover a mere several days, but their impact is Titanic on the lives of those in Jane’s immediate circle. Jane seems to be the only one who is sure about who she is, yet it is her life and the changes in her perception of those who surround her, that are the focus of the book.

The characters are complex and entertaining. There is  Jane’s father, George—Mister Magikoo—a retired magician who, after accidentally electrocuting his wife during one of his performances, runs  a magic shop. George hides his grief behind a gruff and manly exterior, which also shields, among other things, his tender and loving feelings toward Jane. Aunt Ada, George’s sister, has taken Jane under her wing, but is hiding her own secret behind her anger at her brother for killing Jane’s mother. Mia-Mia, the live-in brainless girlfriend of Jane’s father, turns out to be Jack, the educated and sensitive live-in boyfriend, and Karl, the musical prodigy who Jane feels is her closest friend and confidante, betrays Jane in her most vulnerable moment.

None of the above descriptions adequately captures the complexity portrayed in the nuanced interactions of any of these personalities. Beneath their deceit, which we see is based upon the grief that each of them feels and is trying to deny, is a humanness that Jane’s innocent and trusting perceptiveness is able to reveal. The events of the few days in which the novel takes place tumble from one revelation to another, and for both Jane and the reader, the truth that was hidden behind the magician’s curtain is shocking, while at the same time it initiates the next step in her appreciation of a reality that is far less simplistic than she had thought. As each layer of each character is pulled away, the reader finds himself more deeply engrossed in the people about whom he is learning. Jane’s acceptance of the necessity of these illusions for the survival of those she loves (and her stark awareness of the tragedy that results from stripping them away), provides a blueprint for the reader’s suspension of his own judgment in the service of understanding other people’s foibles as essential aspects of their selves. Along with Jane, the reader is able to grow and accept what might have seemed odd or even grotesque if he weren’t able, through Jane’s eyes, to see it as an expression of human nature—and human love— with its myriad complications. In this sense, The Madness of Grief represents a coming of age in which the reader finds himself taking an active part—no mean feat for a short novel such as this.

As in all Cacoyannis novels, the language in which the people and events are described is impeccably precise and evocative. Throughout the novel, there is a balance between the humor implicit in the recurring revelation that people can also be their own opposites and the underlying tragedy of the difficulty of coping with this all too human predicament. The story moves rapidly, contains a genuine mystery, and is thoroughly entertaining. I found it to be a story that left me with a deep sense of satisfaction about the potential within my fellow human beings.



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