Four’s Destiny by Michael Powell

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Four’s Destiny: A Wartime Greek Tragedy
Michael Powell
Movement Publishing, 2018

♦♦♦
3.5 Stars

 

There is no shortage of World War II historical fiction. It was a war leaving in its wake millions of stories, tragedies and comedies, each spinning out a million more. You may think you know all you need to about this grim time in human history, but you certainly do not; and you may feel it only tangentially touches upon your own life, but that too would be erroneous. While World War II literature is certainly the most dominant sub-genre of historical fiction and nonfiction written and read due primarily to the Baby Boomer generation, it is incumbent upon us of all generations to look back at this time with a detailed eye. Not just to know the facts of the matter but to understand the individuals who endured and inflicted it. In this way, Michael Powell’s debut novel Four’s Destiny gives readers not just a meticulously researched historical document but one of genuine human experience. 

Powell lays out a story that has a remarkably good balance establishing the narrative in the end days of the First World War, moving through the youth of the protagonists (the four of the title–English Godfrey, German Rolf, Italian Marco, and Greek Yiannis) as they experience the rise of fascism ahead of the Second World War, and then the action sequences of the Battle of Leros part of a campaign through Greek islands. 

These boys aren’t just proxies for their various nations but for growing up in extreme circumstances. Powell builds their relationships with patience covering large swathes of time and geography. Perhaps his strongest depiction is between Godfrey and Rolf who first become pen-pals and then exchange visits to each other’s country. We are able to see just how casually fascism can arise as Rolf becomes an active member of the Hitler Youth and just how easily it is to dismiss it seeing Godfrey only seeing the evil when actually present at the Nuremburg Youth Rally even though one knows there is something amiss. By land, sea, and air, we experience the war and its nationalist motivations and complications through the boys as their paths diverge and then converge once again during a four day battle in the Aegean Sea. 

When we read detailed, well-researched historical fiction of the kind Powell has given us, we are reminded that the costs of war are staggering. These boys, once friends then enemies, live and die together. In a way, Four’s Destiny is a eulogy as well as a memorial document attempting to enliven a scene from one of the most expansive wars in human history so that we as readers don’t just know it but feel it viscerally. Powell succeeds in both creating a cinematic story and a compelling narrative, and readers of World War II literature as well as historical fiction will be best pleased by this novel. 

 

About the Author

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As a young man Michael was a Choral Exhibitioner at Christ Church Oxford and dreamed of becoming a full time opera singer.  Close to achieving this ambition he later sang professionally with a number of Opera companies and performed regularly as a baritone soloist. But making a living as a singer is hard so he also supplemented the family income as an IT consultant and IT work took more and more time from singing. However, once it dawned on him that tenors have more fun and get to kiss the girls, he had a second operatic career as tenor and during the 1990s and 2000s sang many tenor roles, including Don Alvaro in Verdi’s ‘Forza del Destino’.

His IT activities continued and he designed and wrote three quite successful software products – one of which (for analysing Operational Risk) is still in use. He also started writing, contributing regular articles to Computer Weekly, The Guardian and FT and writing two rather dull books on Contracting published by Reed Business Publishing (astonishingly still available though completely out of date!). He also wrote the libretto for an opera, called “Mister Butterfly”, which was composed by Ken Roberts and performed in Hong Kong in 2000.

 In 1993 he met his lovely Swedish wife, Kerstin, who had been living in Greece for many years, running a charter yacht with her previous husband. She persuaded him, at a time when his fortunes had reached a nadir, to buy a boat. Though this seemed completely crazy at the time, it proved to be one of their best decisions ever. They have been lucky enough subsequently to visit every Greek island and now spend half their time in Greece, sailing on Tosca II, or in their house on Leros.

In the course of their travels, they came to the Dodecanese island of Leros. Michael became interested in the history of the island. It is riddled with tunnels, dug before and during the war as shelter from bombing. It has a myriad of interesting old buildings from the time of the Italian occupation and a British War Cemetery, the last resting place of many brave and distinguished soldiers who died futilely trying to stop the Germans taking over in 1943.

They were entranced by the people of Leros whom they found to be some of the most friendly and outgoing Greek people. It was clear from the start that the islanders are eager to include foreigners and they were made to feel welcome immediately. After a lot of debating, and spending a winter in their boat in the excellent marina, in 2014, Michael and Kerstin found a house right on the cliffs overlooking the wild bay of Gourna. It was incomplete and needed some work. Kerstin happened upon a neighbour, Giorgos, who is a master builder. He, with Kerstin’s input and her ability to speak Greek, has finished the house beautifully as well as becoming a close friend. The Greek character in “Four’s Destiny” is based on his stories of his young life and he furnished some of the anecdotes about the Greek people’s relationships with the Italians. Over long evenings discussing with Giorgos, over a few ouzos, how life was on the island during the occupation by first the Turks, then the Italians, then the Germans and finally the Brits who handed them back to the Greeks – vivid memories told by an island man quoting stories from his ancestors – this book came to be written.

 

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