Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a Greek playwright turned novelist. What Lot's Wife Saw is the third of her five novels. It's the first of her works to be translated into English (by Yiannis Panas) and it won of the 2008 Athens Prize for Literature.
The story is set twenty-five years after a catastrophic flood that drowned much of southern Europe. Rome, Vienna, and Istanbul are submerged. Paris is half underwater and is now a major port. At the outset of the novel, we meet Phileas Book, a crossword compiler for The Times newspaper of London. He lives a reclusive life in Paris, still mourning the loss of his family and childhood friends who died during the "Overflow" of a quarter century ago. He's unable to move on with his life and ekes out a living devising three-dimensional crosswords—Epistlewords—whose clues refer to the letters to the editor section of the newspaper. The crossword looks like a meandros, the ancient Greek key pattern.
Book is recruited by the all-powerful Consortium of Seventy-Five to examine six confessional letters, or epistles, written by its top officials operating a Dead Sea mining colony. It's no ordinary mining business; they're digging out violet salt, which they sell as a drug throughout the undrowned world. The Consortium hopes that Book will solve a mystery: how did the colony's Governor Bera die (murder is suspected), and why has the leaderless settlement descended into chaos? Everyone living in the colony harbors a secret. Most are on the run from the law and so we can assume that the six characters writing these confessional letters are unreliable as witnesses. And in a further twist to the plot, a stranger arrives in the colony and installs himself in the Governor's residence.
Bourazopoulou doesn't seem interested in grounding the novel in real-world geoscience, and her description of the Overflow appears more symbolic than realistic.
The Dead Sea, which Book remembered as tiny and harmless from his geography lessons, swelled unexpectedly that autumn. It drowned Israel and Egypt and poured into the Mediterranean. For days the sea levels rose, inundating the land of North-west Africa, of Turkey, the Balkans, Italy all the way to Vienna, parts of Switzerland, France up to Paris and the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula. Thankfully, after the initial storming of the coastlines, the levels rose more gradually, allowing many areas to stage a torturous evacuation. This resulted in a tremendously overpopulated North Europe and a massive wave of refugees that the other continents accepted. (p. 72)
Putting the issue of scientific realism aside, the two settings are an intriguing contrast—Paris on the northern edge of the inundation, and the colony at the Dead Sea. This colony lies in an environmental disaster area, shrouded in salt mists, bounded by salt seas and a desert peopled by fearsome Suez Marmelukes. With so many fugitives living in the colony it is presented as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, whose corruption is ignored by the Consortium running the colony.
The story unfolds through extracts from the six letters so that each step in the plot is presented as a firsthand account from one or other of the six main characters: presiding judge Bernard Bateau, captain of the guards Andrew Drake, Orthodox priest Montague Montenegro, the governor's private secretary Charles Siccouane, surgeon general Niccolo Fabrizio, and the governor's wife Regina Bera.
The one character who does not write a letter is Bianca Bateau, daughter of the presiding judge and the only person ever to be born in the colony. She has white-on-white eyes and works for Regina Bera. Bianca is depicted on the cover of the novel but for most of the story she is a peripheral player. Her addiction to Phileas Book's epistlewords in The Times comes to the attention of the corporate bosses in Paris and inspires them to pressure Book to help unravel the mystery of Governor Bera's death.
This structure, based on letters, is engaging, and Bourazopoulou has a cast of fugitives who, in the aftermath of the Governor's inexplicable death, maneuver to implicate one another. In doing so they reveal the tensions within this tightly-knit group of characters. This works well. Siccouane, for example, undermines Bateau's reputation, suggesting he pushed his daughter Bianca into menial service at the governor's residence in the hope of making a "profitable investment" from her good looks. Later in the novel, the reader learns that Siccouane's suspicions were correct; Bateau hoped his daughter would seduce the governor.
However, the structure of the novel could have been used to much greater effect. There is little distinction between the voices of the characters. I frequently had to flick back to the start of a chapter to check who was speaking. And they don't read as letters should; they simply read as chapters with alternating viewpoints. For example, a letter would not have long tracts of dialogue. The author's voice is always present.
I was also disappointed with the female characters—Regina Bera is the wife of, Bianca Bateau is the daughter of. Other female characters are servants. Phileas Book recalls his invention of the meandros-shaped crossword at The Times in London and we are fleetingly introduced to the editorial office. A female reporter is introduced thus:
He laughed out loud, adding that the meandros reminded him of Sally's backside and called some desk chiefs to see the drawing, hoping that Sally, who was busy working on an article in the next office, couldn’t hear. Sally, however, had not only heard but had left her office to join all the others from their floor. (p. 126)
There's no mention of Sally's reaction to this remark and the story lurches on. I cannot fathom what these two sentences are meant to achieve.
Following an eventful first half, the novel's pace slackens. The characters charge around the colony like headless chickens, in farce-like scenes that don't propel the story very far. I did get excited when Judge Bateau seriously wonders, towards the end of the novel, if he should return to civilization and face the consequences of his earlier crimes. A moment of redemption seemed at hand. In the end it is Phileas Book who faces his inner anxieties and maybe his personal journey, if expanded, would have hooked me.
Throughout, the novel is over-written and the writing style is too elaborate.
The water had not just swept away human souls and buildings, but had destroyed the safety of the belief that the universe operates with comprehensible rules, and had cruelly cast us adrift with the knowledge that our lives are just a temporary and ridiculous interregnum in the vastness of non-existence. The blood-laden mud that the waves violently churned and deposited over the new coastlines stained the soul and mind and robbed Man of his innocence. It added lead weights to the hand of the Author and to the paintbrush of the Artist, corrupted the smooth perfection of marble, coated the piano keys with acid. (p. 74)
Bourazopoulou has created a post-apocalyptic world, and seems to set out to answer a question—how bad can it get when a mega-corporation can operate free of control, when it can exploit people who have nowhere else to turn? She presents a range of miscreants and tests how people might respond to a fresh start in life, albeit in a society with a corrupt administration. These are compelling issues. Indeed What Lot's Wife Saw reflects back to the present-day, to the reality of living in a failed state.
What Lot's Wife Saw has an intriguing starting point—an isolated community of fugitives living in an environmental hellhole and struggling with their inner demons—and sets out to address equally intriguing questions. But I found that the lack of differentiation between the confessional letters, coupled with the poor handling of female characters, made the novel hard to connect with. There is much to reflect on in this book, but the execution made it hard to even finish.
Anne Charnock's debut dystopian novel A Calculated Life will be published by 47North in September 2013. Her journalism has appeared in New Scientist. She writes about fiction for The Huffington Post and on her blog www.calculatedlife.com. Find Anne on Twitter @annecharnock.