Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent

Review: She Came To Stay - Eleni Kyriacou

She Came To Stay, the debut novel of Eleni Kyriacou, opens with a young Greek Cypriot woman called Dina, arriving in a grimy, bitingly cold London of 1952. The reader stands beside her; the scene is set, and we quickly begin to form an impression of the central protagonist. She has limited options, nothing to return home to, and so steps into her new life in the big city, welcomed by a gust of wind that dishevels the hair she has so carefully styled.

The short prologue lays out the thematic contrast that accompanies the narrative through much of the book – that is the superficial glamour of a world that is aspirational, contrasted with the harsh reality of life in an inhospitable city. Money is tight, the accommodation appalling and the little remaining strength that the characters can draw comes from the bonds they establish between themselves.

The descriptive narrative does seem a touch excessive at times – however the purpose is to help the reader to fully visualise the appearance of the characters. The language and tone of the prose is uncomplicated, perhaps a subconscious reminder to the reader that the central characters are operating in a foreign land and English is not their mother tongue. Dina provides the first-person narrative, disclosing her inner thoughts alongside her observations.

We soon realise that Dina is a dreamer: she is desperate to make London her home and therefore her tolerance has to be stretched to accommodate a grotty bedsit, and the often strained relationship with her brother, Peter, with whom she resides. Their relationship treads an unsteady line between comfort of kinship and the tension of familial duty. They represent the bigger question – asking what comes first, family loyalty, or adherence to morality.

The pervasive fog creates both the atmosphere of Dina’s world and plays an important thematic role in the story. Appearing from the first page, it clings persistently to the narrative and is described in numerous evocative ways. At times it “wept from the walls” and at others it spreads like a “thick, lazy tentacle”. It creeps slowly, advancing in an often menacing manner and metaphorically it represents deception that is masked by pretence, and hides the dirt of London’s underbelly, the world we are dancing along the edges of; it is palpable, but we are not fully immersed. The description of the city itself suggests that first impressions are not always accurate; Dina comments “Some of the city had healed fast from the war but occasionally you’d turn a corner to be confronted by gaping wounds”.

We know that Dina will meet Bebba, who she describes as a “blonde starlet,” and we see there is instant admiration, if not adoration, because of her purported glamour and how she seems to be everything that Dina is not. Whilst Dina has ambition, her dreams are as yet unrealised and without a plan they remain only hopes and aspirations – she is still lost in the smog, unable to find her route out. This is perhaps why she becomes so quickly attached to Bebba – a lively, vivacious, apparently fearless blonde bombshell in an otherwise murky landscape. Their friendship solidifies through an indulgence in the lighter side of life, which until now has, for Dina, been all about work and domestic chores, scrimping and saving, fruitlessly wishing her brother would stop gambling everything away.

Dialogue is used as plot progression, to fill in blanks and to some extent pad the edges. But the exchanges are believable; they can be colourful, the characters talk as you would expect them to communicate. The prose might be tighter and more concise in places – fewer words would suffice without compromising the detail. Yet I devoured the pages: it is an absorbing read, you are keen to discover what comes next.

Eleni Kyriacou
Eleni Kyriacou
The plot advances at pace, taking unexpected detours and throwing in some interesting twists. The tension builds and the fog remains, enhancing the sense of deceit. You don’t trust Bebba, but you want to: much like Dina, you try to cast aside your better judgement. Bebba might be defiant in the face of adversity, and she quickly entangles herself with Dina and her brother. She makes herself almost indispensable, but you cannot help but wonder how much is an act – who is this spirited lady?

The narrative occasionally switches to third person, emerging from Bebba’s perspective. It is used to depict scenes in which Dina is absent, but often Bebba becomes just an alternative narrator when all three are present. Changing the narrator does not, in my opinion, add anything – we don’t learn much more about her and I was left to wonder what purpose there was to the change.

The vibrancy of a 1950s London scene that was available to its wealthier inhabitants, but remained only as window dressing to the rest is convincingly conveyed.

Dina and Bebba meet working as seamstresses in a superficially glamourous establishment called the Pelican- a club of exotic dancers dressed scantily in glitzy costumes, a feast for the eyes for the men, and their clothing a feast for the senses for Dina as she works the sewing machine. But, reflecting the smog of the exterior world, we sense the makeup of the ladies is but a mask for bruises beneath. The setting of the Pelican is a beacon toward which Dina’s ship is waywardly heading – her dream is to own a dress shop, providing outfits for special occasions, or even costumes for clubs “like the Pelican, but classier”. Despite her naivety, we soon learn that Dina is practical and resilient by dint of experience and as our understanding expands, we see too that she possesses a lot of pent-up anger, but this never manifests as self-pity.

The novel explores the sacrifices one must make in life, the choices that one must make and those that are thrust upon us. Thematically, whilst the plot could have described any member of working class ‘50s London, beneath it there is a commentary on the particular struggles that immigrants to the city would have faced. There is the contrast between the dirt of the streets and the glamour behind closed doors; it is about aspiration, the lengths to which people will go in pursuit of their objectives, the tension placed on familial loyalty, and how deception can be a destructive force in any relationship.

The book is described as historical fiction by the publisher, but it is hard for me to place it within a specific genre. There are elements of mystery, of romance, there is suspense and to some extent it reads a bit like a whodunnit – you are never sure which way the plot will turn.

The author herself explains in the afterword that the novel was inspired by the “courage, tenacity and innate optimism” of her own parents who emigrated to London in the 1950s. From this inspiration, Eleni Kyriacou has produced a colourful and engaging debut novel that will bring warmth to even the coldest of winter nights.

She Came To Stay is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available for pre-order in paperback (Feb 18th), or in hardback, eBook and audio now.