My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart (1959)

‘The result of my own visit to Greece and the impact of that wonderful country on a mind steeped in the classics. ‘My Brother Michael’ was my love affair with Greece.’ – Mary Stewart

Camilla Haven had broken with Philip her fiancée of six years, and now at twenty-five years of age, she had come to Greece for a holiday. Elizabeth, the young woman who was to have been her companion had broken her leg and had to remain in England. The story opens in a cafe in Athens with Camilla writing to Elizabeth about her time in Greece up until then.

‘I’m told that Delphi really is something. So I’ve left it till last. The only trouble is, I’m getting a bit worried about the cash. I suppose I’m a bit of a fool where money is concerned. Philip ran all that, and how right he was…’

As Camilla reflected back on her time with Philip, she was sure now, that although it was fun while it lasted, it wouldn’t have worked out. But after six years of being swept up in Philip’s ‘magnificent wake,’ she did feel life was a trifle dull at times.

‘This is the first time for years I’ve been away on my own – I was almost going to say ‘off the lead’ – and I’m really enjoying myself in a way I hadn’t thought possible before. You know, I don’t suppose he’d ever have come here all; I just can’t see Philip prowling around Mycaenae or Cnossos or Delos, can you? Or letting me prowl either… There’s no regret, only relief that perhaps, now, I’ll have time to be myself…Even if I am quite shatteringly incompetent when I am being myself…’

To miss Delphi was unthinkable but it seemed that her only option was a one-day bus tour. It was all she could afford but a case of mistaken identity and her limited knowledge of the Greek language changed her plans. A stranger had come up to her table in the cafe with the keys to a hire car saying that the car was wanted urgently by Monsieur Simon in Delphi – it was a matter of life and death. He was told to give the keys to a young girl sitting alone in the cafe and she would drive it to Simon in Delphi.
After an unfruitful conversation with the cafe owner and various customers and a wait to see if another young woman arrived to pick up the car, she decided she might as well turn the situation to her advantage and drive it to Delphi herself.

‘The thing was simple, obvious and a direct intervention of providence.’

Camilla differed from the other heroines I’ve come across in Mary Stewart’s novels. She was unsure of herself and described herself as incompetent and cowardly. As the story progressed, she encountered situations where her mettle was tested, and she proved to be stronger than she imagined.
There was the usual romantic interest, which also differed from that in other books. Simon, a young Englishman, was reserved and gentle – a counterpoise to the overbearing Philip. Compassionate and tolerant, he saw beneath Camilla’s lack of confidence and gave her credit for having a personality of her own. I liked this shift from the feisty, competent heroine to one who was unsure of herself and couldn’t reverse a car to save herself.

My Brother Michael is set about fourteen years after WWII. Simon’s older brother, Michael, had been with the Special Air Service when the Germans occupied Greece and had been doing undercover work as a British Liaison Officer attached to a guerrilla organisation. Michael had died on Mt Parnassus in 1944 and Simon had come to Greece to find out more about the circumstances surrounding his death.

There’s a bit of history in this story – ELAS, the Communist Resistance; EDES, the anti-Communist Resistance, and the failed Communist coup in 1944.

‘And when you think harshly of ELAS, remember two things. One is that the Greek is born a fighting animal. Doesn’t their magnificent and pathetic history show you that? If a Greek can’t find anyone else to fight, he’ll fight his neighbour. The other is the poverty of Greece, and to the very poor any creed that brings promise has a quick way to the heart.’

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you…?

– King Lear, Act 3; Scene 4

I was reminded of Helen MacInnes book, Decision in Delphi (1960), as it touches on the Greek Civil War and has its climax in Delphi. I linked to a few articles on the aftereffects of the civil war when I wrote it.

My Brother Michael has more violence than any of Stewart’s other books and there is one particularly nasty account of a sexual nature and betrayal in Chapter 17 which was unexpected and jolting but not very explicit.

‘And that was how (…) was murdered with twenty yards of me, and I never lifted a finger to help…’

Some interesting links related to the content of this book:

The Charioteer of Delphi in the Clutches of WWII

Excavations at Delphi

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