Fiction Review by Emily McGiffin

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, The Brink of Freedom (Winnipeg: Signature, 2015). Paperbound, 330 pp., $22.95.

Brink of FreedomOver the past two years, the European Union has struggled to cope with an escalating migrant crisis. EU member countries received nearly 1.2 million asylum applications in 2015—more than double the previous year. On the front lines of this crisis, Greece saw some 124,000 people land on its shores during the first half of 2015 alone. Meanwhile, the weight of Greece's crushing austerity measures continues to grow in cruel defiance of the country's rising taxes. Trapped in the squeeze of this impossible situation, the characters in Stella Leventoyannis Harvey's The Brink of Freedom do their best at survival. The novel unfolds in Athens, the point of arrival for tens of thousands of undocumented migrants entering the EU from points south and east. At the story's centre are Sanjit, the only child of a family that together has made the arduous journey from India, and Shelby, the Canadian aid worker who effectively buys him. From the perspectives of characters caught up in this drama, Harvey probes at the complexities of the migrant crisis and what it means to offer help.

The novel opens with Sanjit's father, Vijay, who, in the course of his informal work as a scrap collector at the margins of Greek society, is captured and impounded by authorities. Although Sanjit's mother, Saphal, is content to put down roots in the neighbourhood of Athens where they have landed, Vijay recognizes the predicament of their illegal residency in Greece and sets his sights on a more prosperous life elsewhere. To boost the odds of success in the perilous onward journey to Germany, Vijay insists that Saphal accompany him and that Sanjit, too small and frail to travel easily, remain behind in Athens. A few months later, when Canadian aid worker Shelby Holt arrives in Athens after a botched mission to Zimbabwe, she redirects her humanitarian efforts to a Roma encampment near her home and takes a shine to Sanjit, now living among them as Bo. Meanwhile, back in Canada, Shelby's son, Ted, has finally begun to confront the abuse and neglect of his past that for years he numbed with alcohol. When Bo and Shelby's stories become entangled, the personal meets the political—and vice versa—as the uneasy past of the two Canadians boils over into the lives of those around them.

As a work of literary scholarship and political activism, The Brink of Freedomis outstanding. Based on thorough research, interviews, and first-hand experiences abroad, the novel is a rigorous, carefully balanced, and realistic account of one of the largest and most complex issues of the twenty-first century. Harvey makes it clear that there is no master narrative when it comes to the question of migration, that the stories, perspectives, and politics are complicated and contradictory. Through the experiences and voices of an international cast of characters, we see the desperation that contributes to migration and to the racism and xenophobia that it too often encounters. We also witness the damage that can be so easily wrought by well-intentioned but ill-informed outsiders.

The novel is also an insightful study of shades of power and marginality. Despite its relative impoverishment within the European Union, Greece is a well-off country compared to the homelands of the migrants who arrive on its shores. Shelby, a middle-aged and newly unemployed widow, is marginal within her own society yet wields the power inherent to her citizenship and race when working internationally. Within the complex layers of authority and exclusion, even the disenfranchised find ways to exert their relative power on the lives of others and cycles of abuse and oppression are perpetuated. Sanjit's surrogate father, Kem, asks himself whether he will always be the victim of oppressors, without seeing the ways in which he mimics the same abusive oppression on the less powerful characters around him. The book carries us down a ladder of oppressor and oppressed to an infirm child at the bottom rung.

The book's political agenda is its main strength yet at times becomes its literary weakness. The fact-laden dialogue and descriptions can be pedantic while the main characters and their interrelationships slide into well-worn norms. With the exception of Christos, the men in the novel are, to varying degrees, manipulative, abusive, misogynist, violent, and alcoholic. The women, on the other hand, are a badly abused set of victims of male whims and vices, short on agency or self-awareness, and submissive to their husbands and their own familial cravings. Harvey takes pains to show that, although more economically and politically secure, the Canadian characters are no less troubled than the impoverished and tradition-bound migrants. Despite her professional training as a social worker, Shelby has spent her adult life blind to the violent abuse of her own marriage in which her young son repeatedly rescued her from the ravages of an alcoholic husband. Rather than venture into the dangerous territory of her own psyche, Shelby capitulates to a pathological drive to "help," interfering disastrously in Sanjit's life in a desperate and misguided attempt at self-redemption. An uncomfortable amount of the book is spent in the head of Shelby's damaged son, Ted, who details the abuse suffered at the hands of both parents as well as a teacher at boarding school.

Overall, The Brink of Freedom succeeds in challenging easy notions of migrant and resident, victim and saviour. While illustrating the many shades of Greek hospitality and violence, it also paints a complicated picture of first-world assistance, depicting a version of individual philanthropy carried to ruinous extremes. This theme is echoed in an epigraph in which Plutarch cautions "the real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits." The lesson, voiced peevishly by a Greek civil servant, is that a more straightforward version of generosity and care is in order: "Why don't they send money instead?"

—Emily McGiffin

As in The Malahat Review, 196, Autumn 2016, 111-113