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September 2007
Book review:

by Grady Harp

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!


By Anna-Marie Krahn
Valley Record

Janey Bennett describes Crete as a place of "hard rock, hard sun and guns." She chose the Greek island as the setting for her first novel, The Pale Surface of Things, because, she said, "I wanted a place for [main character] Douglas to fall apart against."

Bennett started the book not knowing where it would end up. She spent the first of seven years of work on the novel just fleshing out her characters.

"If you let a story come from the characters," she said, "then they determine the actions." She wanted to take a young man who, like many young Westerners she sees today, is disaffected and joyless, and "see what it would take to heal him."

After writing 5,000 pages, most of which she discarded, she figured it out.

"I hit him with every blow I could think of. After I finished the book, I thought, 'What is the single thing [that healed him]?'"

She realized it was accountability. To really live as himself, Douglas had to acknowledge the truth about his actions and accept responsibility for them. After that realization, she spent another year rewriting the novel. Bennett had been to Crete once before she started writing, but she needed to get the geography right, so she went back again and spent three weeks driving around between book locations with her camera.

Health issues prevented her from returning to Greece, so she read as many books about Crete as she could find.

"I just absorbed them. I read 200 books," she recalled. "My understanding of life on Crete got deeper without getting specific."

When she was further along in the book, she consulted Greek friends and experts of all kinds about specific details. She became especially good friends with a young American Greek Orthodox priest. The two spent a lot of time exchanging e-mails, not only about book details, but also about ethics, and what would happen to priests who faced the dilemmas that two priests face in Bennett's book.

"I think it gave me the courage to go a little bit deeper, to what agony a priest could go through," she said.

Bennett's academic experiences also informed her work. She was trained as an architectural historian, and paid attention to the sociology of the past while researching architectural history.

"Novel writing is one step deeper than that," she explains, "but it's the same skill." Both involve "trying to define the essence of what life in a certain circumstance was like."

Her background in history also helped to give Bennett a feel for the history of Crete, and influenced her decision to set her novel there.

"There's just history everywhere. It's an amazing place."

Bennett divides her time between Hornby Island and Bellingham, Washington. She has just become a landed immigrant in Canada.

"I love the way people use language in Canada," she says. "People here speak with a vocabulary that's just wonderful."

She is thrilled with her landed immigrant status."I belong here," she enthused.

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