Desert Isle Keeper
My Brother Michael
Have you ever been to Delphi, Greece? It’s a truly magical, mystical place. Whatever your own religious persuasion is, there you’ll find it very easy to feel close to a higher being, and understand perfectly well why the Greeks built a sanctuary for Apollo on that very mountainside. The novel that captures Delphi’s spirit to perfection is Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael.
After breaking her betrothal to the charismatic but overbearing Philip, Camilla Haven has gone on a trip to Greece, alone since her cousin broke a leg. During the last days of her journey, she is sitting in an Athens café and pondering whether she can still afford a short trip to Delphi, when a Greek man turns up and insists on giving the her the keys to a rented car outside, all expenses paid, which must be driven to Delphi to be handed over to Monsieur Simon for an emergency. Camilla first tries to send the man away, but then temptation overcomes her, and she takes the car up into the mountains. (For anyone who has ever driven a strange car on foreign roads, that trip is hilarious.) In a village next to Delphi, Camilla comes across Simon Lester, English like her. He has no knowledge of the car or of an emergency, but as he seems the only Simon in the vicinity, he agrees to help her to find out for whom it is really meant.
Simon Lester is a Classics teacher, and he is in Delphi because it’s here that his older brother Michael died during World War II. Michael worked as a liaisons officer between the Allies and Greek resistance groups, some of which has communist leanings and were into some shady dealings with Allied arms and money. In a letter written just before he was killed, Michael hinted to his father about a sensational find he’d made, and Simon is here now to see Michael’s grave and to try to find out what he discovered. Camilla’s car comes in handy, and together they embark on a double quest.
What I love about this novel, besides the enchanting descriptions, is the vivid picture painted of the lives of Greek peasants both in the 1950s and during the war. It’s a world that is alien even to Camilla, even more to us now, and described in a manner both moving and respectful.
Simon is a marvelous hero if you have a thing for the quiet ones. He is one of those people who are always completely at ease with themselves – equally at home visiting a peasant’s home, quoting Ancient Greek, or in a hand-to-hand fight to the death. Camilla is so used to being overshadowed that she needs to grow in her independence and self-confidence, and he senses this and gives her the space she needs. Their love is instant, but only expressed in small words and gestures, which may be a touch too subdued for some readers’ tastes.
The minor characters are striking and colorful. One woman character first appears too stereotyped, but even she gains more dimension later on. The mystery is interesting, too, and I liked the way more and more elements are added, leading to an artistically powerful conclusion.
I have reread My Brother Michael several times – for its evocation of Delphi, for its memorable characters, for its subtle romance, each time with great enjoyment. If you haven’t read it yourself yet, I can only recommend you do so.