DIGGING UP CRETE!
Archaeology, Nazis and restoring Frescos in Janey Bennett's Greece
All his life, Douglas been going with the flow, not asserting himself, as if good looks can serve as a compass. Hotfooting it from his own wedding vows in eastern Crete, thereby horrifying his bourgeois betrothed and her crass, rich, American father-in-law-to-be, is an unforeseen act of self-preservation.
But where does he go? Where does he hide? Having worked on a summer archaeological dig, Douglas takes refuge with a Greek widow and her young son, a goat shepherd, hoping to start his life afresh. But when our injured hero-on-the-run gets robbed a second time—by the thief who shot him the first time—he astonishes himself and the boy by stabbing and apparently killing their assailant.
So now the formerly hapless Douglas is on the lam from the police as well as an irate father-in-law. Penniless, forced to steal, he plunges headlong into village intrigues that have arisen from the brutal Nazi occupation of Greece more than fifty years ago.
That’s just the beginning of Janey Bennett’s fascinating first novel, The Pale Surface of Things (Hopeace Press $22). The young, would-be archaeological is the hook for only half of the story. There’s another, far more important central character, Father Dimitrios, wise beyond his years, viewed as radically modern by the locals, who has also eschewed romance.
The American-educated but Crete-born Orthodox priest who uses email and rides an antique Vespa motorscooter has returned to vendetta-riddled Crete to unravel a dark family secret. The paths of the two seekers finally cross about halfway through the novel, by which time Janey Bennett has easily succeeded in making her reader want to get a ticket to fly to Heraklion from Athens as soon as possible.
Incorporating points of view from a myriad of supporting characters, Bennett has a Balzac-ian zeal for bringing the society of Crete itself into the foreground of her story. We also get drawn further into the history of the Cretan underground resistance during World War II.
“Some are born Greek, some achieve Greekness, some have Greekness thrust upon them,” she says. “I was lucky. I stayed in Chania for a month, driving back and forth across Lefka Ori, tracking down villages and World War II sites, looking for locations and geographical links.
“I was planning to go back several times a year while I wrote Pale Surface and instead, after that trip I nearly died from a parasite I picked up in Asia, so I bought all these books and researched by reading.
“My Cretan friends think I may have been more accurate as a result of not being there, of not interacting with them. They are amazed that I know more than they do about traditions on the island and their grandmothers verify my information.”
Ultimately, the confluence of village traditions, Greek law and the Orthodox church enable Douglas to learn necessary lessons of shame, terror, gratitude, forgiveness, and ultimately, accountability.
The title The Pale Surface of Things refers to Father Dimitrios, who, with help from Douglas, painstakingly restores religious frescoes that were covered up during the war. It’s a sophisticated, movie-like novel, slightly longer than it needs to be, that persuasively shows how personal honour can be more important than sex, social striving or conformity.
Published from Victoria, with an overly-modest book jacket, The Pale Surface of Things has received seven book industry awards, including a gold medal for multicultural fiction from USA Book News Awards, as well as Indie Excellence Awards and Indie Next Generation Awards. In Canada, Pale Surface has gained a citation for Best Use of Environmental Materials (from PubWest), shared with Friesens Printers of Manitoba, who used 100% post-consumer recycled paper with vegetable inks.
—Alan Twigg / BC BookWorld
Winner of seven book awards in 2008, "The Pale Surface of Things" certainly lives up to its reputation. Filled with strange yet authentic characters, it focuses on a Cretan village filled with thrilling and entertaining writing that will keep the reader glued to the book from first page to last. A tale of small village life, "The Pale Surface of Things" takes what seems to be a simple concept and adds enough twists to make it believable and a great reading choice.
—The Midwest Book Review
"A wonderfully crafted, superbly written nuanced novel of redemption that deserves a wide reading public."
Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from author Janey Bennett, who asked, half apologetically, if I would review her novel, The Pale Surface of Things. It had received several awards, but it was still largely her responsibility to promote her work.
Because the premise of the story sounded intriguing—a young American archaeologist excavating on Crete runs out on his bride-to-be on their wedding day and the girl is his patron’s daughter—I gladly accepted the offer. I anticipated a somewhat madcap adventure/farce a la Arthur Philips’s recent best-seller, The Egyptologist.
What I received was a wonderfully crafted, superbly written nuanced novel of redemption that deserves a wide reading public. Author Bennett claims to have spent seven years in researching and writing this, her first novel, and I believe this labor of love was worth every moment of her effort.
The tale is deceptively simple in many ways. It follows the paths of several characters—an American archaeologist, Douglas Watkins, who indeed does leave his bride at the altar; an orthodox priest, Fr. Dimitrios Papadakis, born on Crete but reared in the United State who is following in his grandfather’s pastoral footsteps; an American entrepreneur, George Hanson, who seems to be following in the footsteps of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and his hopelessly narcissistic daughter, the hapless bride-to-be Denise; a young Cretan widow, Vasilia and her son, Aleko, both of whom befriend Douglas while he is on the run; a thuggish village politician, Spiros Kiriakis and his equally thuggish son, Manolis; and a variety of citizens of the villages in the shadow of Lefka Ori, the white mountains of Crete. These wonderful characters, introduced at the outset as rather one-dimensional creations, become nuanced and complex as the narrative unfolds. They lead their separate existences and then at meaningful junctures, as if in a literary minuet, they idiosyncratically yet gracefully enter into and impact on each other’s lives and then step back once again. The language of the narrative is equally graceful as its rhythms seem uniquely suited to convey the timelessness of life in the Cretan countryside; the sense of place and atmosphere is brilliantly evoked by author Bennett.
Remembrance of things past, in particular the Nazi occupation and brutalization of the island of Crete, plays an integral part in the novel as Fr. Dimitrios must face the demons of his family’s past—but in so doing he provides an avenue for Douglas Watkins, feckless and self-absorbed at the outset of the novel, to redeem himself and his existence. After a series of harrowing adventures and near-disasters, Douglas finds new meaning and richness of life represented in the traditional culture of the Cretan countryside. Fr. Dimitrios defines this lesson succinctly with his statement late in the novel: “This small village, Vraho, somehow contains every shading of human life. To love this place is to love the world.”
When you read The Pale Surface of Things, you will learn about Crete and its people; you will learn about iconography; you will learn about archaeological obsession; you will learn about the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Crete; you will laugh at some of the characters and you will cry with others. But most of all, you will know that you have read a truly remarkable piece if literature! Four trowels for this first novel by Janey Bennett—but only because I can’t give more!
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center
Reflections on small press books.
Many times, when reading small press and self-published books, the reasons the book was published by a small press are obvious. It could be an obscure topic, an eccentric writing style, a local or regional audience, or even though I hate to say it and these are the minority, sometimes a book needs a little work and is just not ready for prime time.
However, The Pale Surface of Things is none of these things. It's a rip-roaring tale filled with action-packed scenes, sun-drenched, romantic locales, mysterious figures, generational secrets, religious men with unresolved romantic issues, gunshots, art restoration, etc. and so on, and so forth, in fact:
ATTENTION HOLLYWOOD! THIS NOVEL NEEDS TO BE A BIG SCREEN MOVIE! MAYBE WITH A FEW SEQUELS EVEN! STARRING SEVERAL MAJOR STARS AND A FEW MINOR STARS ALSO! PLEASE CAST REAL ACTORS AND NOT THOSE WHO BECAME FAMOUS FOR STARRING ON REALITY SHOWS!
ahem. Hollywood, if you're reading this, I have a few other things to talk to you about. Call me.
So basically, this book is accessible, entertaining, and better written than about 90% of the mainstream stuff out there, at least the mainstream stuff that comes across my desk for book reviews. I couldn't put it down, and it was one of those books that when it was over, I kept wondering what the characters were up to for a few more days. Any complaints I have about it are minor: some plot twists are a little too perfect, and perhaps there are a few too many plot twists? But what the hell, it was a great story. And great stories are sadly few and far between, small press or big box publishing house.
To add to the great story, there is a lot to chew on here. Morality, faith, culture, money, politics and academic struggles, successful and failed relationships all play a role in this novel. It's one of those books that if I re-read it, now that I know all the plot twists, I could go back and get a lot of nuance that I didn't previously notice. Apparently it's popular with book clubs, and I can see why; I also think Janey (and whichever lucky Hollywood producer gets her hands on this) has at least five more novels in here somewhere if she would write a sequel, explore the back stories of some of the characters, and go in more depth on a couple of the minor plotlines.
This book is just a place you want to be. So go there.
Posted by Angie Kritenbrink
The Salinas Californian
Intrigue Shadows 'Pale Surface'
Bennett immediately grabs the reader's attention in this novel set on the island of Crete when the main character, Douglas Watkins, literally runs off and leaves his bride standing (and fuming) at the altar.
Realizing the union with a wealthy, spoiled young woman he was being pushed into marrying was a huge mistake, Douglas just takes flight when the moment of truth arrives without any money in his pocket or his passport back at his hotel.
Seeking refuge in the nearby hills, the American is befriended by a local widow and her son, plus a priest who grew up in San Francisco and, thus, speaks English. When Douglas returns the family's hospitality by trying to defend the boy who is accosted by a would-be thief the story becomes complicated.
The masked robber whom Douglas stabs turns out to be the cousin of the boy and a family "situation" quickly develops. Thus begins a journey of sorts where Douglas turns to the village priest for help and guidance. Although he has run away from stressful situations in the past like his wedding, the young American has to confront this situation head on.
The ensuing story that focuses on the friendship that develops between the two men, Douglas' realization he must take responsibility for his actions and the interaction between the villagers, priest and Douglas makes for a captivating read.
Quote: Musing on the changes in his life brought about by the events in the story, the main character says: "Nobody ever said the word 'ethics' when I was growing up. I was taught the Golden Rule, and I learned that if I did what was asked, I'd stay out of trouble. But that's all. Where does one learn ethics? How do you become an ethical person?"
Audience: In a very readable debut as a novelist, Bennett creates a story about characters one enjoys getting to know. The two young men in "The Pale Surface of Things" both undergo some personal changes that make them not only better individuals but they also move to a higher level of understanding and compassion when it comes to human interaction.
The setting of this work is a plus and as important to the narrative as the cast of intriguing characters.
ROBERT WALCH of Monterey writes about Central Coast Authors for the Arts & Books page Saturday in The Salinas Californian.
from an Amazon.com top 10 reviewer.
'No Man Is An Island', August 3, 2007
Janey Bennett makes a startlingly fine debut as a novelist with THE PALE SURFACE OF THINGS. Not only is Bennett able to conjure a fascinating story of many complexities and intertwining plots, she is able to place her story on the island of Crete in such an assured manner that her gift for research and exploration of a certain place leads us to wonder if Crete is her home! In florid prose, exacting attention to details of each of the several plots, and in her ability to bring the reader into the realm of Crete with all of its idiosyncrasies and history and charm Bennett creates a propulsive novel that is a most satisfying read on many levels.
Grady Harp, August 07
The Pale Surface of Things - a great read set on the Greek Island of Crete...
The Pale Surface of Things by Janey Bennett is the story of four male heroes - a fatherless Cretan mountain boy, a young American runaway bridegroom, a Cretan/American celibate Greek orthodox priest, and a never-been-kissed virginal Belgian academic archaeologist. All are searching for their place in the world, and they find it – here on the beautiful Greek Island of Crete.
Their paths crisscross each other throughout the story like the donkey tracks, mountain paths and goat trails of the little Cretan villages, or the alleyways, passages and maze-like back streets of Chania's Venetian old town. Bennett captures these interactions wonderfully as their deepening relationships and personal stories unfold.
Tender and touching in places, challenging and thought provoking in others, Ms Bennett's first novel is a sheer pleasure to read.
All the characters are painted so vividly by Janey Bennett that you can see them, touch them, smell them, and feel them. You hear their voices, and the story they have to tell, loud and clear through Bennett's brilliant narrative. The various subplots add even more wonderful layers to the whole story and make for a very interesting, exciting and gripping read.
Graham & Alison
Rating: 5 hearts
A novel about characters in a community on the isle of Crete, the
title is a literary allusion to the walls of a Greek Orthodox church
whose beautiful religious murals were covered with whitewash after a
horrific massacre of towns people by Nazi soldiers in WWII. The
current priest, an American, has come to this very church where his
grandfather once was the ecclesiastical chief. His grandfather had the
walls whitewashed, but now the young priest is painstakingly exposing
the original paintings to the world. The literary allusion is in the
layers of paint we use on our souls to hide the good and bad and show
the indifference. Enter the young priest's old girlfriend, who is
seeking to finalize their relationship one way or the other, and
Douglas, another young American searching for himself.
This is a touching, fairly humorous story that brings the concepts of
honor and integrity to its readers. The settings are wonderfully done
and the unique characters of the Cretan natives add seasoning to this
Greek odyssey. We rated it five hearts.
Publisher and Chief Reviewer
Canada seems to produce a raft of interesting novelists. A small press, Hopeace Press of Winnepeg, Canada, has published Janey Bennett’s The Pale Surface of Things ($21.95), that is both a fast-paced
adventure and a more serious examination of the difference in values between a culturally root-less young American and a deeply traditional village on the
Isle of Crete. There to study Minoan archeology and to marry, the story opens as he flees on his wedding day to begin a modern odyssey that will change his life. For anyone who enjoys philosophical issues in a mix of kidnaps and killings, this is a book of considerable merit that is an excellent debut for the author.
Alan Caruba, editor,
Member, National Book Critics Circle
Midwest Book Review
Reviewer's Bookwatch: September 2007
The debut novel of the multitalented, modern Renaissance woman Janey Bennett, The Pale Surface of Things is a dark story of archaeology, lies, betrayal, and murder, set in a crucible between two cultures.
When an American archaeologist flees his forthcoming marriage and cozy future, he runs to the traditional world of a Cretan village... where he must confront all the anger, fear, envy and shame within himself.
He becomes entangled within an utterly ruthless family vendetta. Years ago, in World War II, the village suffered horrifically at the hands of the Nazis; today, its present-day priest labors to heal the lingering wounds from that time. Ultimately a story about maturing and developing the strength to confront both internal and external demons, The Pale Surface of Things is an absorbing novel, difficult to put down.
Comox Valley Record, Wednesday August 22, 2007
WONDERFUL STORY IS FASCINATING FOR ITS IDEAS
Janey Bennett’s first novel has it all: adventure and suspense in an exotic location, a full cast of interesting characters, and thoughtfully rendered philosophical ideas.
In The Pale Surface of Things, Bennett masterfully interweaves characters’ interior journeys with fast-paced action set on the Greek island of Crete. Her writing is simple yet elegant, and creates a strong sense of place that greatly enriches the novel.
The book opens with Douglas Watkins, a young American who has never thought for himself, fleeing his wedding. He becomes caught up in the lives of the Cretans he meets in a small village.
Most important to Douglas are the American Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. Dimitrios, and Aleko, an intelligent young boy. Fr. Dimitrios helps Douglas to think about the consequences of his actions, and has a fascinating story of his own. Aleko is unwittingly involved in the feud that creates much of the novel’s action, and his uncle is convincingly awful as the villain of the story.
During the curse of a series of adventures, Douglas begins to understand what is important in life. If this makes the novel sound preachy, it’s not. A sense of ethics permeates Bennett’s writing, but usually not in a simplistic way.
The novel is about what is meaningful in individual lives, not the meaning of life in some grand sense. A number of characters are ordinary people with some extraordinary experiences who are struggling to live authentic lives.
There is a mythic aspect to the way Douglas faces one trial after another, and in some ways each prepares him for the next. However, The Pale Surface of Things is definitely written as a novel, not as a fairy tale or a simple morality play, and is informed by modern psychology and philosophical ideas from modern and ancient times.
If there is any criticism of this novel, it is that sometimes forgiveness comes too easily, dilemmas are resolved without much difficulty. But this Is more the exception than the rule. Many of the characters’ problems do not have easy solutions.
Characters try to come to terms with their personal histories, many of which, among the Cretans, are inseparable from the tragedies from the war.
The Pale Surface of Things is fascinating for its ideas, but it is first and foremost a wonderful story with interesting characters, and is well worth reading.
Anna Marie Krohn
The Ko-Go Khronicles/ τα χρονικα
November 2007 issue
Kokkini Hani, Crete
This first novel by Janey Bennett, in one way, leads her into the study of classical Greek, Byzantine icon painting, geology, botany, the vernacular architecture and sociology of Greek villages, Minoan culture and art, the science of archaeology, World War II on Crete, and criminal law in Greece.
The Pale Surface of Things is all that and much more. As the story unfolds, and the characters jump to life, they all set off to find their purposes in life.
This is a fast moving novel which takes you into a Cretan village in the mountains near Hania. It revolves around a small Greek boy, a young American and a newly ordained priest.
The story cleverly intertwines the archeology, Byzantine icons, and the secrets and atrocities of World War II.
It is also a story about the simplicity, the pride and the rituals of village life, which turns out to be anything but simple, and involves robberies and even a killing.
Pale Surface is a very good novel and an excellent read for everyone…a book which is hard to put down once started.
“Bennett’s soft-spoken language in the book is nearly poetic and her command of the subject demonstrates a richness that few authors are able to achieve. The people [that] both main characters meet along the way only add to the charm Bennett brings to the written pages of this monumental story.
“The Pale Surface of Things” is a superb novel by a truly gifted author.