Life & Culture

Review: Daughters of the Labyrinth

Padel brings a painter’s eye to her descriptions of Crete


E7ETTY British poet and non-fiction author Ruth Padel FRSL FZS appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Daughters of the Labyrinth

By Ruth Padel

Corsair Books, £18.99

Reviewed by Jenni Frazer

It is rare to come across literary fiction as satisfying as Ruth Padel’s Daughters of the Labyrinth — and, accordingly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If her name is familiar beyond the fiction world, it’s because she was the centre of a pre-social-media storm in 2009, when she was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, the first woman to be so, and then resigned, after attacks on her nearest rival, Derek Walcott, emerged in public.

Padel — who is today Professor of Poetry at King’s College London— said she did not wish to remain in post under suspicion. The misogyny that swirled about the election at the time created a toxic atmosphere which, to some extent, Padel unpicks in this new novel. She does so in an absorbing fashion, because this is primarily a story of women and the choices they make.

A too-swift scan of the blurb suggests this is yet another in the “woman goes into the past and finds herself” genre. In fact, though her protagonist, an artist named Ri, does make the well-trodden journey from London to Crete, there are surprises on the way — for Ri and for the reader.

Ri, recently widowed from a long and happy marriage to a Jewish man, has a whole host of discoveries in store, particularly about the fate of the Jewish community of Crete during the Holocaust. Like Ri, I had no idea that there was a Jewish community in Crete before the war, or what had happened to them. But Padel skilfully shows the lives of Cretan Jews deeply embedded in the island’s life, and, tragically, how cut off they were from what was happening to Jews as close as the Greek mainland. Ri knows about the deportation of the Jews of Salonica. She knows nothing about the Jews of Crete — or, as it turns out, about her own family.

Padel brings a painter’s eye to her descriptions of the island, past and present and, for good measure, includes some initially baffling poetry to explain the story of Crete’s Jews during the Occupation. It’s only in the last pages of the novel that this final mystery is resolved. On the way, we learn about Ri’s relationships with her daughter, her mother, and the symbiosis between the Christian and Jewish communities on Crete.

Right at the end, we learn a new Greek word: koronios. It is, of course, the onset of the corona pandemic, a new menace for the Cretans; and Padel reminds the reader of the economic hardships suffered by Greece in recent years, with food, electricity and job shortages, in sad echoes of the lives of Greeks during the war.

So many books of fiction that address the Jewish condition fail miserably because the author doesn’t get the details right. Padel, however, succeeds triumphantly and the whiff of authenticity seeps from every page, even up to Ri’s attendance at Muswell Hill Synagogue in the closing chapter. By the end of the book, I was willing the fictional Ri to re-establish the roots of Cretan Jewry, against all the odds. Padel has certainly supplied her with the string to lead her out of the labyrinth.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist and critic

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