There’s more that unites us than separates us and that’s one of the things I will take away from this novel. Under the skin, away from the politics and economics, the societal constructs, we all have the same basic desires and when it comes to it the same basic right to try to make a better life for ourselves and those we love. We all want human contact and when we grieve, it may seem like we are alone but it comes from the same well of sadness we all dip into. So We Are Made of Earth deals in universal themes that hit home but the tone of his novel is quite light.

Compassion shines out in Karnezis’ new novel. He is addressing the global refugee crisis in his own inimitable style, this is the story of a married European couple, two people with their own problems who find common ground with two refugees, a man and a boy who have suffered too. The relationships highlight how much we are alike in our humanity; anger, mistrust, generosity of spirit, and love. These are people trying to make the best of their lot in life, these are nuanced characters. Karnezis is holding a mirror up to European society and it’s reaction to the humanitarian catastrophe and looking at why refugees put themselves through the most arduous, terrifying and dangerous journeys to seek a better life. We can’t afford as a society to harden our hearts to the plight of others, for our own good as much as theirs, we are all made of clay. In this novel some people demonstrate no fellow feeling while some rise above the mire, we should remember: We Are Made of Earth.

The heart-rending opening to this novel puts the reader in the boat with a group of refugees. It’s a powerful exploration of their anxiety and pain, all hell is about to break loose. Karnezis is an original and intriguing storyteller, after the disaster the tone of the novel shifts from the horror of a sinking boat and death in the vast lonely sea to the tale of the two people, a man and a boy, who arrive on an island. Beguiling, charming prose draws the reader into the complex unhappy lives of four people seeking something in each other, but are the connections lasting or a temporary despite from real life? It’s almost subversive the way you are shifted from grief to hope but are always aware there is tragedy ahead, the world can be a harsh place. It begins with the boat:

The refugee boat was little more than a dinghy at sea for several hours now. The passengers are anxious, restless, there’s still no sign of land. The traffickers promised they would reach an islands in a couple of hours. They should be there by now. Then the weather turns:

“Men cursed, women prayed, children cried.”

Someone suggested using the sun to navigate a course, they must stay calm, there is no point in attacking each other, the men who lied to them are not here. Mokdad underestimated the weather at sea, his clothes are too light and he has little else in his rucksack. The weather worsens, the boat is tossed mercilessly, everyone clings tight to each other, to the vessel. They only met on the beach waiting to board, they all have their own stories of the journey to the coast. Mokdad is a doctor, a worried tailor with an orange life jacket who can’t swim asks Mokdad to mind him. The engine dies, the men begin to row but the weather is against them. At dusk they loose the sun and the ability to navigate. The waves turn the boat over, the passengers are cast into the sea, some sink other drift off and then sink. Mokdad sees his rucksack in the water, it’s all he has, he will need it in Europe. He swims towards it, but he catches sight of the tailor, even with the life jacket the man is panicking, drowning.

Mokdad abandons the bag, swims to the man but his increasing panic threatens them both. Mokdad witnesses two girls go under, they don’t come back up, it will be a long night. With perseverance, courage, and luck Mokdad survives with a young boy, Jamil. Jamil has lost his mother and sisters. Finally they make land desperate, hungry, thirsty. They share a secret, a bond.

Damionos and his wife Olga own a circus, or at least they did, now they own a few rag-tag animals and a collection of rusty caravans. Ranjanya, a Bengal tiger, is loaded onto a ship, sold cheaply, they badly need the money. The captain tells Damionos of the possessions floating in the sea, the remains of a refugee crossing. Nothing to do but radio it in and move on. The shipping agent turns down Damionos for a loan again, the creditors are circling. Damionos and Olga talk but don’t connect, it soon becomes apparent that the couple are grieving the loss of a child. The circus owner is a generous man despite his own troubles, he finds the two survivors when searching for the elephant, he takes them in and gives them a home. The married couple and the refugees become friends and the attempts of the Mokdad and Jamil to leave for the mainland never quite come off. New refugees arrive on the island and, as the relationship between the two refugees and Damionos and his wife develops, tragedy looms. They all share a sense of loss, a suspicion, motives are misunderstood, trust is hard to establish and there is the constant pressure around them from those who view the refugees with suspicion and hostility.

The opening of the novel is a tragedy that is played out across the Mediterranean nearly every day of the year now. For all those who make it to Europe many more drown. Often they leave no one behind, they are expunged from the record forever. Karnezis’ story stirs the emotion, the anger and sadness, and empathy for refugees. He has a way of telling a story that feels grounded and flighty at the same time, not exactly surreal but just a little bit off kilter, both entertaining and hard hitting.
Melancholic, loaded with pathos this is a gripping read, perhaps it is also an important one.

Paul Burke 4/4

We Are Made of Earth by Panos Karnezis
Myriad Editions 9781912408276 pbk Sep 2019