Janey Bennett makes a startlingly fine debut as a novelist with THE PALE SURFACE OF THINGS. Not only is Bennett able to conjure a fascinating story of many complexities and intertwining plots, she is able to place her story on the island of Crete in such an assured manner that her gift for research and exploration of a certain place leads us to wonder if Crete is her home! In florid prose, exacting attention to details of each of the several plots, and in her ability to bring the reader into the realm of Crete with all of its idiosyncrasies and history and charm Bennett creates a propulsive novel that is a most satisfying read on many levels.
Bennett wisely places American characters with Cretan peoples and inserts as a common ground the presence of a priest who was born on Crete and studied in the US: the result is a flawless mix of language and concepts from both the familiar with the unfamiliar. Douglas is a young man without self direction who goes to Crete at the expense of his adopted family, the Hansons, to study Minoan Archeology and to marry the Hanson's daughter Denise. In a brilliant opening chapter Douglas is fleeing the wedding day ritual and beginning an Odyssey that will change his life. As an 'ex-patriot' of sorts Douglas encounters the friendship of Father Dimitrios who lives a celibate life tending to his villagers and restoring a war-damaged wall of art in his church, meets a young lad Aleko whose warmth and familial invitations stun the now penniless Douglas, and enters the `interior' of Crete on a fascinating journey. In a series of events so rapid fire they feel like explosions, Douglas and Aleko share experiences that test the durability of family codes and tragedies, place Douglas in jeopardy, and ultimately lead him (with the guidance of Father Dimitrios) to an understanding of himself and an acceptance of his place in the universe. '...what people take for being good is just being brave and doing it alone.'
Bennett offers many subplots that explore the presence of the Nazis on Crete in WW II, the history of a family that has been challenged by misunderstandings and vendettas, the manner in which the Hanson family finds greater happiness and worth because of the daring ending of a haughty wedding ceremony, the ways in which youth of Crete learn maturity, and copious sidebars regarding archeology, history, art restoration, Cretan foods and traditions, and the beauty of the simplicity of life on an isolated island. Crete, in so many ways, is the main character in the novel, and Bennett knows her way around her stage as well as anyone who writes. THE PALE SURFACE OF THINGS is a solid, intoxicating novel that gently reminds the reader of the importance of philosophical issues and the way they mold lives. It is a smart, entertaining, superb novel! Grady Harp, August 07