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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Why I Killed My Best Friend

Amanda Michalopoulou

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To purchase Why I Killed My Best Friend

Title: Why I Killed My Best Friend
Author: Amanda Michalopoulou
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 257 pages
Original in: Greek
Availability: Why I Killed My Best Friend - US
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  • Greek title: Γιατί σκότωσα την καλύτερή μου φίλη
  • Translated by Karen Emmerich

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Our Assessment:

B : novel of personal and political tensions, better in its details than as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Why I Killed My Best Friend is narrated by Maria, who tells her story in chapters that alternate between the present and an account of her growing up, from age nine, when she first met the best friend of the title, Anna. When she was nine Maria returned to Greece with her mother, leaving behind the beloved Nigeria where she had grown up. She has difficulty adjusting, but becomes close friends with Anna, who arrives soon later, returning to Greece with her mother just like Maria had -- but from cosmopolitan Paris -- and they remain close for years afterwards. Now thirty-four when she begins her account, Maria hasn't seen Anna in ages -- but her old friend comes back into her life, bringing with it all the unresolved issues from their past.
       Something happened between Maria and Anna at some point, and Maria drops some hints along the way -- mentions of when: "that thing happened to us, after we parted ways for good" and the like. Unfortunately, Maria teases the reader along, holding back and not revealing what it was that drove them apart until very late in the book. Dangling the promise of some pivotal moment in the characters' lives, and then holding back on what it was is a dangerous game for a writer to play and Michalopoulou barely gets away with it. Arguably, Maria must make her way to that point, reliving the past -- her entire complicated relationship with Anna -- before she can address that momentous event itself, but the pay-off here barely seems to justify it. Michalopoulou complicates matters by then not focussing on the big reveal but going on to land a one-two punch of follow-ups -- another big reveal of an event from the distant past (going back full circle in the narrative and helping to explain a few things), and then an easy-out conclusion that allows her to neatly tie-up the story, the cheapest way of solving a problem like Anna.
       Anna and Maria's relationship seems, throughout, childish and familial -- there's a deep emotional sort of bond, but they often are at odds with each other otherwise. It can seem that their relationship never really matures, but in fact Maria doesn't have any satisfactory relationships at all: she loves her parents, but isn't particularly comfortable with them and true intimacy with the great love of her life -- and the man she is living with when the novel begins -- is out of reach, since he is a homosexual. If not quite as hard and severe as the novels of Elena Ferrante, Michalopoulou's certainly resembles them in her stark, unforgiving examination of relationships -- though she undermines herself in keeping those secrets in what is otherwise so forthright a narrative.
       The scenes from Maria and Anna's lives are often strong and moving, beginning with Maria's attempt to escape back to Africa shortly after arriving in Greece as a child, and Michalopoulou is good in describing the dynamics among the cast of characters -- school scenes, their respective families. Greek politics figure strongly in the background throughout, from the girls' childhoods in the late 1970s through the turn of the century, and often come to the fore as well, especially as Maria, who becomes an artist, becomes politically very active. Much here is presented just as background-markers -- mentions of events, books, and people -- that are obviously more meaningful to Greek readers than to those less familiar with Greek history and culture over the past four decades, but the gist comes across; still, here as throughout, it feels like Maria is skimming across (a lot of) surface in her account, rarely delving in very far.
       Much of Why I Killed My Best Friend is inspired, including Maria's art-work, but Michalopoulou seems to shy away from lingering over most of these interesting ideas, not trying to make very much of them and instead hurrying on to the next thing. She proceeds in quick fits and jerks; for a novel that is structured so carefully chronologically there's little sense of progress or character-growth; one of the resulting weaknesses of the novel is that we have a limited sense of many of the characters. (Of course, part of Maria and Anna's respective problems are that neither seems to really grow up; both seem fully-formed -- and stuck -- at age nine; this is also reinforced by the alternating-chapter-set-up shifting back and forth between past and present, alternatingly presenting their very similar younger and older selves -- though, of course, this also reflects Maria choosing to see the past in this way (i.e. reading their present selves into their past ones).)
       Ultimately, the success of the novel hinges on the blanks that have been left unfilled until near the very end. The most anticipated one turns out to be something of a dud, at least in the way it's handled, but Michalopoulou redeems herself somewhat with the second big reveal, which truly does throw a new light on Maria and that nine-year-old girl's arrival in Greece; it's unclear, however, why this information was held back for so long (and feels like a bit of a cheap trick, a manipulation of the text and the reader by the author). On the other hand, the novel's conclusion is unconscionable in its writerly laziness, an almost desperate escape hatch.
       Why I Killed My Best Friend is a frustrating sort of relationship-novel, leaving too many gaps to fill. Michalopoulou's cast of characters, and much of her invention -- especially the varieties of political activism and of art (including Anna's wonderful rationalization of her architect-husband's work (and her own contributions to it)) -- are absorbing, but too much is withheld, too little explored sufficiently thoroughly. What could be a very good book turns out malformed, the author's reliance on some lame, over-used tricks of the fiction-trade sapping much of her narrative's vitality.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 April 2014

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Why I Killed My Best Friend: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou (Αμάντα Μιχαλοπούλου) was born in 1966.

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© 2014 the complete review

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