My Brother Michael

Nothing ever happens to me.

That is the opening line of My Brother Michael. A young Englishwoman—the narrator, Camilla Haven, on holiday in Greece—is sitting in a cafe in Athens, writing a letter back home, and feeling a bit sorry for herself. Not an adventurous sort, she wanders tamely from one ancient site to the next, guidebook in hand, and wishes she had enough money to hire a car and drive to Delphi, the centre of the world to the ancient Greeks.

She should have known better, because in true novelistic fashion, she gets what she asked for, and more. Moments later she finds herself, in a case of mistaken identity, being handed the keys to an already paid-for car urgently needed by a Mr Simon in Delphi. Before she has time to recover from her shock and make sense of the situation, the car-hire agent vanishes into the crowd. He had been told to deliver the keys to the young foreign lady sitting alone in that cafe at half past ten, and he did; his part in the story is over. So, naturally, Camilla drives to Delphi to deliver the car. (Wouldn’t you?) Delphi is a small place (at least it was in the 1950s, when this story was written), so finding Mr Simon won’t be difficult, right?

She encounters a Simon almost immediately on her arrival; an Englishman named Simon Lester who is, like herself, a classics teacher at a British public school. He, however, claims to know nothing about a car hired in his name, or why anyone would do so. He helps Camilla make enquires, but they don’t find another Simon, and the locals give him curious, sidelong glances.

Simon tells Camilla he has come to Delphi to see where his older brother, Michael, died during the war (World War II). Michael was a British Liaison Officer working with the Greek guerrillas fighting against the Nazi occupiers. He died in 1944, more than a decade earlier, but as Simon, with Camilla tagging along, soon discovers, that time span wasn’t nearly long enough to heal old wounds and lay bitter animosities to rest. The locals talk about ghosts walking on Mount Parnassus, and Simon’s arrival seems to have triggered an increase in activity. There was more to Michael’s death than a simple battle with Germans, and the forces that led to the fatal conflict are still at work. Camilla’s desire for a little adventure turns out to be much more dangerous than she could have imagined.

My Brother Michael is one of several of British writer Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels set in Greece. One of the things I like about it is the skilful interweaving of romance, a solid mystery, and a sense of place strong enough that when I see pictures of the ruins at Delphi, I feel almost as if I have been there myself. In my mind’s eye I can see the glare reflecting off the Phaedriades (literally, “the shining ones”), a pair of cliffs on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. I can see Simon standing on the stage of the ruined amphitheatre, reciting in Greek from Sophocle’s Electra, calling on the gods to:

…Be near me, and avenge
My father’s death, and bring
My brother home!

This is the book that introduced me to Mary Stewart in my teens, decades ago. It’s one of my go-to comfort books, to re-read when the world feels like it’s going to pot. My biggest quibble with it is that the depictions of the women in it feel dated. Camilla is intelligent and emotionally astute, but more passive than some other Stewart heroines. (Plus she hikes up Mount Parnassus in a dress! Well, women did, in the days before trousers were acceptable, but sixty years later it seems ridiculous.)

Simon, on the other hand, is a dreamboat: tough, tender, decisive, competent, and compassionate. There is some sex in the book, but not involving the two main characters. There is little overt acknowledgement of the growing connection between them, and almost no physical contact, but the understated romance is—at least for me—more compelling for being understated. With so much left to the imagination, there’s lots of room to explore the relationship in our own minds, after the book is closed.

Trigger warnings: violence and rough sex. And everybody smokes, constantly.

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