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The Green Shore

A Novel
By Natalie Bakopoulos

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Green Shore includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Natalie Bakopoulos. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    On an April night in 1967 while the city of Athens slept, the Greek military quietly engineered a government takeover. By dawn, private life and public space were forever changed. Readers of Natalie Bakopoulos’s masterful debut witness this devastating event and its brutal aftermath through the stories of four characters: Sophie, a twenty-one-year-old student of French literature who gets swept up in the excitement of the resistance; her mother, Eleni, a widowed doctor who rediscovers the political passion of her younger years; Mihalis, Eleni’s brother and an outspoken poet; and Anna, Sophie’s younger sister who sheds her childhood shyness and flourishes as an activist, risking her life to defy the military regime. This turbulent, passionate, and devastating era of recent history is brilliantly portrayed through the lens of a family—each member struggling to find their own version of peace and fulfillment in unsettled times.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. The Green Shore opens with the military takeover of 1967. Compare each character’s initial experience of the coup. What are Sophie, Mihalis, Eleni, and Anna doing when they realize that Athens is under siege? How does each react to the rapid changes of that April night?

    2. Although Christos has died long before The Green Shore opens, readers catch glimpses of him through a family that still mourns him. How does each of Christos’s children—Sophie, Taki, and Anna—resemble their father? What did you learn about Christos from their memories?

    3. Sophie recalls a line from a poem by Giorgos Seferis: “Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.” (MS-pg. 223) How does this line relate to Sophie’s experiences abroad? Which other characters are “wounded” by separations from home, family, and loved ones?

    4. During the years of military rule, “the simple awareness of the dictators stealthily altered both pubic and private space, and every so often, it jutted out like this: a frightening lump, a jagged edge, an eerie, alarmed wail.” (MS-pg. 196) Provide examples of how the military junta changes both public space and private lives in The Green Shore. Were you aware of this part of Greece’s history before reading The Green Shore?

    5. Compare the two men in Eleni’s life: Dimitri and Andreas. How do their personalities and values differ? How does each interact with Eleni? Why do you think she hesitates to end her relationship with Dimitri? What keeps her and Andreas apart?

    6. According to Mihalis, “the poet was an observer and as such he could never truly be a participant.” (MS-pg. 52) Discuss Mihalis’s urges to participate in his country’s fate. How does his art affect his political beliefs and actions? His relationship with his wife?

    7. Consider how Anna changes over the course of The Green Shore. What is she like when she is first introduced in 1967? What kind of young woman has she become by the end of the novel? How has she changed, and in what ways has she remained the same?

    8. Mihalis reflects to himself: “Things between himself and Irini had always been electric, glowing one minute and short-circuiting the next.” (MS-pg. 50) What is the source of the electricity between this couple? Discuss moments in the novel when Mihalis and Irini’s marriage “glows” and also when and why it short-circuits.

    9. When Anna begins her affair with Evan, Panos tells her, “Nothing good will come of this. You know that, don’t you?” Is Panos correct in his prediction? Why or why not? Why doesn’t Anna heed Panos’s warning?

    10. Sophie hesitates to tell Anna about her relationship with Loukas, because “Anna had always taken the high moral ground with everything and wouldn’t understand the complexities of the heart.” (MS-pg. 221) How does Sophie underestimate Anna after their years apart?

    11. According to Eleni, the past is always alive in Athens: “History was inescapable, undeniable, and palpable: an acrid taste of ash.” (MS-pg. 285) Compare the presence of the past in Greece and in the United States. In your opinion, is history also “inescapable” in the United States? Why or why not? Why do you think Taki prefers living in America to his homeland?

    12. Discuss the brief romance between Vangelis and Nefeli during their island imprisonment. How do the church frescoes reflect the emotions of their affair and oppression? Why do you think Vangelis stays with his wife when he and Nefeli return to Athens?

    13. When Taki brings his wife and child to Athens, “Somewhere, beneath the indifferent exterior, Taki was both happy and shattered to be back home.” (MS-pg. 343) Compare the two homecomings at the end of the novel, when Taki and Sophie return to Eleni’s house. Is Sophie, like Taki, “both happy and shattered” when she returns? Which sibling seems to handle the homecoming better?

    14. Discuss the ending of The Green Shore. Which characters’ lives are on the brink of change in late 1973? Which relationships have strengthened and which have been threatened? Why do you think the author choose to end her novel on this note on uncertainty?

    15. Consider what you know about the recent economic crisis in Greece. How does The Green Shore resonate with current problems in Greece?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Play a round of tsougrisma with your book group, inspired by the Greek Easter tradition. Reread the passage on MS-pg. 80 where the family breaks their eggs. Make enough red-dyed hard-boiled eggs for all members of your book group to challenge each other to a round of egg-cracking. Whose egg will last the longest?

    2. If you’re the host of this book club meeting, greet your guests with tasty triangles of spanakopita. Find it at your local specialty food store or try out this recipe: www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/spanakopita-spinach-triangles-or-pie-recipe/index.html.

    3. Watch a performance of Mikis Theodorakis’s song “Sto Perigiali,” a song based on the poem “Denial” by Giorgos Seferis, Sophie’s favorite poet: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhk0ckaCxDI.

    4. View a map of Athens to pinpoint some of the neighborhoods featured in The Green Shore: Halandri, Kifissia, Plaka, Omonia, Kolonaki, Psychiko, and Exarcheia. A searchable map can be found here: www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/google_map_Athens.htm.

    A Conversation with Natalie Bakopoulos

    What led you to write this book?

    I’ve always wanted to write about Greece. My father is from Athens, our family visited the country when I was a child, and I spent a summer there when I was eighteen living with my cousins and traveling around the islands. On that trip I absolutely fell in love with the country: its landscape, culture and language. The place—not only figuratively, as is probably often the case for first-generation Americans, but physically—has always exerted a strong pull on me. Each time I arrive in Athens I feel my heart pound.

    How has your relationship with Greece influenced your writing?

    When you’re in love with a place where you don’t live, I think your imagination resides there during your absences. This distance and its resulting duality is a wonderful motivator for creativity. When I’m in the U.S., I’m always remembering the smell of the sun on the streets and beaches, the way the traffic sounds in Athens, the small details of daily living that are so different from my daily life in Ann Arbor. The contrast makes your awareness of both places all the more vivid.

    Though it may sound counterintuitive, the fact that I often feel as though I’m an observer in a place I love is not what alienates me but rather what connects me. Good writing has tension, and to write well requires some sort of tension. So many writers I admire have written about writing as a form of exile, of outsider-ness: George Seferis, Nadine Gordimer, Roberto Bolano. Gordimer once said: “The life, the opinions, are not the work, for it is in the tension between standing apart and being involved that the imagination transforms both.”

    The character of Mihalis is largely inspired by a real person. Can you describe the connection? Why did you make this decision?

    Mihalis is inspired—and I want to be clear to use the phrase “inspired by” rather than “based on”— my great-uncle, a Greek poet named Mihalis Katsaros. I never got the chance to meet him, but I’ve heard many stories about him from my family and friends who happened to know him.

    My father told me of Mihalis living in the basement of his childhood home in Halandri, a suburb of Athens; of Mihalis’s friendship with the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who sometimes stayed at their home. All this intrigued me. A composer, a poet, a basement—an artistic life underground, so to speak. A subterranean world. Though the novel is not entirely about this subject, maybe it’s why I first started writing this book.

    There’s a scene in the book where Mihalis walks into a chic café that had once been a low-key establishment, stands on a chair, and berates the diners—both for their patronage of the place and what he sees as their nonchalant passivity to the dictatorship. Though the details and perspective of the scene are imagined, the actual instance of Katsaros’s outburst was not. Before I had written the scene, before I had any sense of where the book was going or what it was about, a Greek poet, Dino Siotis, told me this story about Katsaros, and it stuck with me.

    Since I never knew the real-life Mihalis, he is for me more fully realized in the fictionalized poet who exists in this novel. To paraphrase from Aristotle’s Poetics, the role of the poet is not to tell what actually happened, but to imagine what inevitably could or might have happened. I never knew the man, and maybe this was a way to imagine that I did.

    Why did you choose the historical and political setting you did?
    I’ve always been interested in the way the political and personal intersect, for one. The roles of tyranny and oppression, of fear and uncertainty, are rife with dramatic possibility. As Charles Baxter has said, “Hell is story-friendly.” But I think if a piece of art has a clear, complete agenda, it risks becoming thinly veiled propaganda. Saul Bellow has said that positions “emerge” in a work of art, and I love this idea. It’s so much more organic and natural. If we start with a position and then craft a story around it, we might limit ourselves. The characters might become thinly veiled mouthpieces and not characters at all. Nobody is emblematic of just one thing: we are all sums of so many contradictions.

    To follow-up, how did that time period influence Greek culture and society today?

    As a fiction writer—not a historian, political scientist, or economist—I’m wary of making general pronouncements or of drawing connections, particularly in a small amount of space. But having had a military dictatorship in one country’s recent history, a history also marked with foreign intervention, will obviously influence a collective outlook. It also inevitably stunts any sort of progress. I think in the U.S. we are very isolated, almost alienated, from even our most recent histories. I don’t think this is the case in many other countries, Greece in particular.

    Whereas fear of the powers-that-be was a common sentiment during the junta, I think the prevailing sentiment now is fear of the future. The threat to democracy is not a military dictatorship or a foreign occupation but instead economic uncertainty and not only what will become of Greece but also of Europe as a whole.

    Which character in the book do you most identify with?

    All of them. Mihalis’s rage, Sophie’s impetuousness, Anna’s feelings of insignificance, and Eleni’s struggle with what is appropriate: these have all come from my own inner space. At different times of the writing I felt closer, so to speak, to different characters. But I have created them. It’s one of the reasons I write: to examine, to explore, and to experience lives different from and similar to my own.

    What would you like readers to take away from your novel?

    My initial, humorous response: “People are going to read this book?” But after I get over that shock, I think what is important is that I’ve created the experience of the story. But the way it will be experienced will surely be different for each reader. That’s the beauty of literature. Most of us can attest to the hugely different experiences of reading the same book at different periods of our lives. Besides, if it were simple enough to articulate as an absolute I’d say it in a few lines and not need 350 pages—and seven years of writing—to express it. This much I can say with certainty: I want my readers to feel, I want them to laugh, I want them to experience rage and heartache and joy, sometimes in the space of one page.

    Specifically, what would you like Greek readers to take away?

    I want for my Greek readers the same as I want for any other reader: to be moved. I do hope that Greeks will recognize certain moments, events, and places. If I can capture that period for at least some readers, I will feel happy and successful. I’ve done significant research, lived in Greece on several occasions, and understand the language (at least I try to!)—and I love the country in a way that’s hard to articulate. That said, there will inevitably be things that some Greek readers feel I’ve gotten wrong, whether details that feel anachronistic or ones that are related to this country’s particular period of history. Despite my best attempts at verisimilitude, I didn’t live through this period. However, my imagination has lived with it for the better part of a decade. And these characters have lived inside me for so long that I feel they must know me as well as I know them. That’s what I hope will feel true: the lives these people lived. Their struggles, their loves, their short-comings, their beautiful mistakes. I hope for this recognition from all my readers.

    The Green Shore is not just about living in a time of political instability or fear. It’s about love and heartache and negotiating our own personal boundaries: what we are comfortable with, what we are not, and how we can figure out the difference. How we survive. What I want is for my characters to feel abundantly and complexly human. Fiction isn’t about what happened—we have wonderful historians and nonfiction writers and journalists for that—but about what something felt like. Fiction, to re-appropriate Auden on poetry, is a “way of happening” in itself.

    What is the Green Shore?

    The title comes from a line in the poem “Sleep,” by Kostas Karyotakis. It begins: “Will the gift and good fortune be granted / to us that one night we can go to die / there on the green shore of our native land?”

    The poem implies a sort of exile, and though not all the characters in this book are in exile in the traditional sense, they are in a metaphorical sense. I’m not necessarily talking about a physical separation from one’s home. The green shore represents a Greece that might have been lost—and in the light of what is happening in Greece now, I think this idea is perhaps even more resonant. It’s a place or state that exists but has disappeared. It’s a longing for something that either never was completely or that was and has vanished, or been snatched away. To die on the green shore of your native land is to somehow reclaim that place. Or maybe to imagine it in a new way.

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