The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis (Sandstone, £8.99)

Spice Box LettersThe Nottingham writer Eve Makis’ first book, Eat, Drink and Be Married, drew on her family background as a Greek Cypriot living above her parents’ fish and chip shop in West Bridgford. This, and her next two books were aimed at a mass market – light fiction, with some humour, published by a mass-market publisher. In The Spice Box Letters Eve challenged herself to write a more complicated novel for the first time set in a world she knew nothing about. Several years on, several false starts and rewrites later we have her novel set in Armenia in 1915 and in more recent times among the Armenian diaspora in Cyprus, a community she barely knew existed before embarking on this novel.

Why 1915? This was the year of the massacre and expulsion of Armenians from Turkey in which perhaps a million people died, some from murder and others on long death marches into the Syrian desert. The Cypriot community stemmed from some of those who survived. Eve’s story starts in 1915, just as the massacres begin before moving quickly to England in 1985 where the daughter and grandchild of a recently deceased Armenian immigrant come across some of her letters, written in a script in her first language, in a script her family cannot read. You know immediately that the two incidents are related – the rest of the novel weaves together the back stories of one family, including that of Gabriel Arakelian, a curmudgeon who tries to hang on to the Armenian world he lost. Yet how do you hang on in the face of “the evil of assimilation, the curse of intermarriage, the biggest threat to our traditions, our language, our nation.” Others say “Let the young do as they please. Why should they be tied down, become victims of our past.? The answer is “Because we as a people nearly ceased to exist.”

This issue – one faced by any migrant community, including Eve’s own, is at the heart of the novel. But it is a novel, not a history book. Having said that, we learn a lot about Armenian cookery. Eve remarked at the book launch that she visited villages in Eastern Turkey that had barely changed in a hundred years and researched what herbs and spices were in use at the time to ensure authenticity.

Ross Bradshaw

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