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Novel set in 1954 North LONDON

27th November 2023

The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou by Eleni Kyriacou, novel set in 1954 North London.

Novel set in 1954 North LONDON

Greek Cypriot Grandmother Zina has been invited to stay with her son Michalis and daughter-in-law Hedy, but this is after years of being spurned by them. It seems she is in London under sufferance and her peasant ways are intolerable to her daughter-in-law. Zina is delighted to spend time with her granddaughter Anna, but her ways, her potions, her Greek rituals and superstitions all rub Hedy up the wrong way.

Fast forward a couple of months, it becomes clear that Zina is to be charged with Hedy’s murder.

Zina is in Holloway Prison and the interpreter assigned to her case is Eva Giorgiou and she is spending time getting to know her client. She has worked for the Metropolitan Police for several years and therefore comes to this new and notorious case with some experience. The press and the police have already all but condemned Zina but Eva is not convinced. It is Eva who lets slip to Zina that if, at trial, she is found guilty, then the death sentence is a real possibility (the death penalty in England was suspended in 1965 and it was only in 1998 finally abolished for all crimes). Zina can neither read nor write and she cannot make herself understood by the English speakers around her and it is only through the medium of Eva’s talents that she can make her thoughts and questions known and tell her story. Even the prosecuting barrister describes her as an “illiterate peasant type” when he is laying out the case in court; others describe her as “stupid“. Eva allows herself to be emotionally sucked in.

Zina mentions to Eva in passing that something like this happened in the past, in Cyprus, and Eva is taken aback as that sounds so incriminating. She chooses not to translate that nugget and of course from thereon in, they are locked into a secret which comes back to haunt her. The art of the interpreter is so well evoked in this novel, how people are unfamiliar with the etiquette of interpreting (there are three sides in the dynamic and the parties should talk to each other through the services of the translator, they should not talk to the translator directly). Interpreting is a finely honed skill and requires very different skills to translating.

Eva has a sense that Zina perhaps has mental difficulties, that she is “trellee” in Greek – sometimes her responses are unusual given her grave situation, but Zina is adamant that she wants to face everything that is coming at her.

This is a poignant story based on a case that actually took place. The novel is so evocative of the 1950s, highlighting the norms of casual racism and misogyny.  It is a gently paced story, and at times a little slow  perhaps, but throughout I really wanted to know how the story would pan out. It is beautifully written and kept me reading. The ultimate mystery and question, of course is: did Zina commit murder or not?

Tina for the TripFiction Team

Catch the author on TwitterX @elenikwriter 

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