There are certain elements—romance, beaches, good food and drink, sex—that evoke the term “summer read.” What kind of read, however, is fitting for a summer like 2020? What is an ideal summer read for a world marked by a pandemic, the related anxieties, the varied government responses? What kind of summer read feels right for a world where people are taking to the streets en masse, not just in the United States but worldwide, in support of Black lives and to protest American police brutality? Enter Natalie Bakopoulos’ second novel, Scorpionfish (Tin House, 2020). There is a brightness to this novel—the drinking, the great food, the music, art, camaraderie, lust, the vibrance of Athens, the lure of the islands—that checks the boxes of a summer read, but there is also a rankness, a seriousness that provides depth—the hot stinking trash from a garbage strike, a country in crisis, disaster tourism, overwhelming feelings of both heartbreak and grief.
The novel is brief and compact, clocking in at around 250 pages. To call it lithe would betray the complex details and layers on each page. To call it dense would betray the liveliness and concision of the prose. The narrative uses the first-person point of view of two characters: thirty-something academic Mira who has returned to Athens from the United States to clean out her parents’ apartment after their sudden deaths and a character largely referred to only as “the Captain,” even though he has lost his maritime job, who shares a balcony with Mira in that same apartment building. Mira and the Captain get to know each other during long conversations on their shared balcony where they are separated by a wall, talking late into the night without seeing or touching each other. Mira is also navigating her recent break-up with an up-and-coming Greek politician as well as entangling herself once more in her friendships and life in Greece.
I started reading Scorpionfish on my own balcony, a feature of my apartment that had been a perk when I signed my lease but became a full-on luxury when the stay-at-home orders were enacted. On my balcony, I was able to get fresh air, but I also became more aware than ever of my neighbors and my surroundings. The first of the two parts in Scorpionfish mimics this feeling of spending a night eavesdropping on a balcony. This is true literally, as Mira and the Captain’s relationship develops on a balcony. More broadly, it is true in the way that Mira describes Athens, the neighborhoods, the people, the history, reflecting the feeling of sitting on a balcony in a crowded city and absorbing the world around you through snippets of conversation carried through the night air or glimpses into windows across the street.
Mira arrives in Athens shortly after getting tenure. “I was proud to have just gotten tenure. But it was not my sense of self. What, exactly, was? That was the question,” she wonders alone in her parents’ old apartment. This question of identity weaves itself through the entirety of the novel. Does Mira feel Greek or American or neither? Where does she want to live? What does she want to be doing with her life? While she does not want to be defined by her role in academia, her perspective as an ethnographer and anthropologist comes through in the way she describes the world around her. She uses precise details to tell a full story about neighborhoods, restaurants, and people around her. Mira spends a lot of the book with Nefeli, a lesbian artist and the former lover of Mira’s aunt, who is in the process of putting up a new art installation. At one point, Nefeli says, “We fought over politics not sex […] How could we distinguish the two? How could we extricate identity from anything, from politics, from the art we make, the stories we tell, the things we feel?” This entanglement of the personal and the political is reflected in the way that Mira describes Athens and the politics in the city. There is no heavy-handed narrative around the Greek economic crisis. Instead, there are subtle and genuine ways that it impacts the people in Mira’s life. She describes the changing of neighborhoods and the young artists that flock to Nefeli’s exhibits. Nefeli talks briefly about her time in a camp during the far-right military junta. In a later scene, Mira has a violent run-in with nationalist extremists when they hear her and her friends speaking Arabic and English. The story shows the political complexity in Athens through these personal moments.
There is a gossipy and interconnected feeling with the web of characters around Mira. The characters around her are lovers, friends, related. Athens and the islands take on the feeling of a small town. She has a tendency to refer to people by titles—the Captain, the novelist, the politician, the movie star—as if she is labeling them in one of her oral histories. The first time Mira runs into her recent ex, Aris, the politician, he says to her, “That’s what history is. Revision. Point of view. Of all people, you should know that.” This pointed remark hurts Mira because of its truth. She is hyperaware of the way that the presence of an outside observer telling a story, the way that she does in her work and her oral histories, in turn shapes the narrative.
In the first half especially, it feels as if this anthropological eye paints a robust world around Mira, but it also allows her to create a disconnect between herself and her grief. “Excavating these remnants of the past, I felt neither nostalgia nor a particular connection. I felt newly empty. But when I tried to pinpoint the source of this haunting emptiness it was not clear.” Even when memories of her parents do strike her, she cannot shake her role of the storyteller, the ethnographer. She only trusts some details of her memory; she knows that in retelling anything it is becoming inherently something new.
The second part of the novel finds Mira and the Captain both back on, N., the island there their families are from. In this half, Mira’s distance from her grief both heightens and begins to unravel. We learn that she often imagines herself from the outside, even as a little girl, dissociating in a way that makes it easy for her to view herself as a subject of study. There is a looseness in the second half. Mira spends time physically in the sea, but she also allows herself to become more overcome by the waves of her own grief.
The moments where Mira imagines herself split into two is not the only example of duality and her identity. Even though we get sections from the point of view of the captain, he often feels like he is sketched in relief; there is a clear picture missing. In some ways, he almost functions more as a cypher to Mira than a standalone character himself. Mira’s distance from and worries around Nefeli are mirrored in the Captain’s uncertainty about his father’s wellness. The Captain also shares Mira’s uncertainty around identity, the feeling of being unmoored. When we first meet him, he shares: “I’m not a man of geography. I don’t attach myself to places. I’m more comfortable with the placeless universality of the sea, its altered progression of time.” This lack of attachment becomes clearer and more complicated throughout the narrative, as he wonders how to define himself after losing his job at sea and starting to exist more outside of the confines of his marriage. Even the moniker the Captain plays into this loss of identity, as he rarely gets a name and is defined on the page by something that no longer applies to him. He, like Mira, exists in much of the novel as a disembodied voice across a balcony wall. For both of them, the balcony seems like a liminal space where they are sharing so much of their histories in order to become more clearly defined, not just to each other but also to themselves.
The novel is sexy and warm and plays with the ways that love and romance interact with ideas of independence and interdependence, especially when one considers the ways in which the Captain’s sections function as another reflection through which we can understand Mira. In a way, this turns the narrative into a love story between Mira and herself but free from many of the clichés and tropes that are present in similar stories of women finding themselves while experiencing heartbreak and grief. There is a messiness and lost feeling without the compulsion to tie things up in a neat bow. Even if you can’t go to the beach, Scorpionfish is an ideal summer companion with its complicated heat.