Book Review: An Affair of the Heart by Dilys Powell

An Affair of the Heart by Dilys Powell

I was sent this book by Eland Publishing.

It is not a book of stormy passion, despite the title, but one that meanders slowly around post-war Greece, returning almost two decades later to the point where it begins – Perachora.

Perachora, a small village close to the sea, is host to an archaeological site that Dilys Powell’s first husband worked on in the early 1930s. She joined him for much of the time, and the pair – both Oxford graduates – developed a strong bond with the locals and their village.

Sadly, in 1936 the excavation and its discoveries had to end when the author’s husband, Humfry Payne, died suddenly due to an infection. For a time Dilys Powell returned annually to the country for holidays, and briefly to Perachora in 1937 and again in 1945, but the outbreak of war brought the visits to an end until 1953.

Two trips then follow, where she takes us through rural Greece, back towards the places and people she knows best. It feels simple, but it is layered with details of recent wars and the scars still carried by the communities and individuals she meets along the way.

I felt like a bystander at an archaeological site, allowed to watch as the landscape is delicately brushed aside to reveal living characters, each held up to the light for respectful examination and conversation.

Her second trip back is to an actual dig, but this time to one that involves divers. Curious and courageous she tries her hand at the diving but it does not go well, and eventually she abandons the deep waters.

Walking is her strength, and whilst doing so she collects more acquaintances in the unknown places around the site at Emporio.

But it is to Perachora and its lighthouse that she longs to return before she leaves for England, and at last she does.

All is much as she remembers it, with “the village living its withdrawn, elemental life …”

And the families are pleased to see her return. Like their village they are weathered by circumstance but still as determined as she recalls. She is grateful for their generous welcome, and the sharing of memories.

The final pages of the book are dedicated to them:

“That there is much poverty; that we work, that we are in need. Will you tell people? You must tell them about us.”

‘I will tell them,’ I said.

And that, now I come to write it down, is all I have to pass on. The Perachorans are poor, and they build a museum; that is the story of the village.”

They have built in good faith, and their stubborn trust is that one day the artefacts found on their land will be returned to their brand new, empty museum:

“They have done their part, and confidently, patiently they wait.”

It is the last line in this story ‘of age and leaf-fall’ – a quietly observed tribute to a land and its people after war. The language is respectful, and the dialogue written in the formal to and fro of the time, which stilts at first, then draws us onwards.

Archaeology and the recent history of Greece are at the heart of the book, but around them both are the beautifully written observations of Dilys Powell as she travels alone through the countryside, by bus and on foot.

I found it a clear-sighted, reassuring book … a peaceful read on the edge of troubled times, for it is filled with friendships – some unexpected, and others held close Ever After.

There is an Afterword by Victoria Hislop.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019

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