Childhood friendships carry a powerful emotional and psychic charge that casts an overwhelming shadow over our memories. The day I first saw my first best friend is vivid in my memory, but after many years of having been inseparable the bitter end to our relationship left an equal, if not more searing, impression. A fated, yet strangely willed, union between young girls, tinged with a similarly biting antagonism, lights the fire that burns throughout Amanda Michalopoulou’s new novel, Why I Killed My Best Friend. The provocative title suggests that its protagonist and narrator, Maria, is not so much inspired as she is continually challenged and imposed upon by the person who is her childhood classmate and the eponymous best friend, Anna. Indeed, the way Anna dictates and directs Maria’s every thought, romantic interest, political ideology, place of residence, and entire sense of self makes the novel an acutely accurate portrayal of female friendship, as well as of our innately human desire to cling to those who elicit the parts of ourselves we’d rather keep locked up in the dark.
Indeed, one of the novel’s most stirring and recurrent images is a cave, including at times specifically Plato’s illuminating cave, which Maria literally suppresses from her own memories of childhood in Ikeja, Nigeria. Her family relocated to their country of origins, Greece, but a real cave on a Nigerian beach gave her her most enduring scar—both physical and emotional—that she keeps to herself all throughout her life. When Anna blows like a hurricane into her life, however, she directly and indirectly rustles up this part of Maria’s past until the cave itself “come[s] unstuck from solid land and sail[s] off blissfully, like a raft on the waves. [She] isn’t hiding in the cave anymore. And why would she? The rain has stopped.”
As pretty and optimistic as these words suggest Maria’s catharsis to be, Michalopoulou doesn’t allow her characters, or her readers, a clear or easy answer to any of the book’s central questions and conceits. She played similar games in her labyrinthine, award-winning and internationally acclaimed collection of linked stories I’d Like. The book unwinds the haunting story of a family, centered on the relationship of two daughters but told through a kaleidoscope of voices and time periods that shift radically and subtly throughout. In the explosive ending, we also see how the stories themselves are linked in yet another, metafictional way: they comprise a series of excerpts from an unfinished novel written by one of the daughters, a conceit borrowed from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.
In Why I Killed My Best Friend, Michalopoulou employs yet again such masterful and deft shifts in narrative voice tense, chronology, and setting to capture the jagged edges of the novel’s central relationship, of the women as a pair and as individuals. Anna and Maria have a symbiotic connection that at first seems—in fact, is—grossly parasitic and fatal, yet at the same time necessary for both of their survival. And while Maria’s transformations under Anna’s influence are more palpable in the book itself, we’re asked, too, to consider how and why the enigmatic Anna needs her friend just as much, if not more.
The answer has some roots in the proverb recited by Maria’s nanny in Nigeria: “When a ripe fruit sees an honest person, it falls.” Throughout the novel, it’s suggested that the “honest person” is Maria. She’s brought up in a strict family, where manners and politeness are paramount. And so she’s shocked by Anna Horn, whose descent upon Maria’s first Greek classroom is first taken with relief—at last a fellow new kid and expatriate—but she quickly proves to be infinitely more chic and sophisticated than Maria. Anna has arrived not from uncivilized Africa but from Paris. Her mother, Antigone, is a ballet dancer and active in leftist political circles, and Anna speaks with the worldly élan, even ennui, of a woman three times her age. Antigone has drilled into Anna the slogan “Liberté, egalité, fraternité,” variations of which are emblazoned throughout their home on posters and sculptures. For Maria, this lifestyle is liberating, thrilling, confusing. But it’s also demeaning as Anna continually outshines her with each of their shared endeavors: when they chop off their long, girlish locks, Maria looks like the cut was done with a machete or razor blade in a dimly lit bathroom whereas Anna pulls it off as effortlessly gamine; when they go on hunger strikes, Maria’s emaciated body resembles a Holocaust victim’s whereas Anna’s is model-lithe and elegant. As much as Maria acknowledges this inherent competition between them and tries to resist the ripeness-verging-on-rot of Anna’s fruit, she’s inexorably caught up in her chaotic whirlwind of adventure and rebellion. She confesses during their teenage years, “Anna confuses me the older we get. She’s always telling me what to do—to kiss her, to break up with [my boyfriend] Kostas—and meanwhile she does whatever she likes. If I were the one who’d let a boy touch me everywhere, I’d have had her to reckon with.”
Indeed, Maria is at odds with her own confusion about the reciprocity of their relationship, for even as she’s aware of the frustration Anna causes her she thrives, almost willingly, in it. On the one hand, in a telling line, she explains that “The people in my life are always going somewhere . . . And I’m forever in the background, waving a handkerchief as they leave.” This sense of searching stasis underlies every stage of Maria’s life, through to the novel’s narrative present, at which point she is a thirty-five-year-old schoolteacher. And this stasis is manifest in the language of the book itself, which moves fluidly between memory and the present day, using the present tense for both. Not only does this create a strikingly blurred and vivid atmosphere—multiple geographies and psychologies flowing together—but it also suggests a feedback loop of sorts between the friends. As they grow up and part ways again and again—Anna leaving Maria for Paris, Maria forging a identity of her own as her sexual, intellectual, and artistic coming-of-age is guided by her friend’s ironically present absence—each time they meet they are immediately their old selves: “We’re nineteen, but you’d think we were nine. Lying on our backs on the beach, Anna and I are digging holes in the sand with our heels, chattering away, moving from one topic to the next as if we’d never been apart, as if our friendship has never wavered.” Maria forgets her grudges, and Anna never acknowledges, or perhaps isn’t cognizant of, the way that Maria needs her, the way she feels abandoned when Anna leaves Maria behind for something seemingly bigger and better.
The novel’s political backdrop is a natural one for this ebb and flow. The girls grow up in the late 1970s through the 1990s, a fiercely turbulent time in Greek history. The shadow of a brutal dictatorship is immediately behind them, and the gaze of Communism is just ahead; as the translator, Karen Emmerich, puts it in her acknowledgments, this is an era “uncannily prescient of the current crisis in Greece,” both in a political and an ideological sense. Although politics motivate much of the book’s action, from the revolutionary movements that Anna and Maria both subscribe to and suffer from to the mounting AIDS epidemic that threatens to stifle their sexual liberties, they neither overwhelm the action nor bog down the reader with unnecessary details, facts, or personages. Instead, we experience them viscerally and intimately: an earthquake sends shattering aftershocks through the physical and emotional landscape, a protest takes the life of the beloved Antigone, a shoot-out on the Attic Highway leaves Maria, ultimately, alone in her friendship. The context, the influence, the bonds are all there for the express purpose to show what happens when they disappear.
These layers of suffocation—interpersonal, political, cultural—are omnipresent, but the novel’s (and Anna’s) bleak conclusion, told indirectly through newspaper clips and obituaries, suggests that Maria will not be the victim here after all. Yes, she was always alone, trying to be what people wanted her to be and made to feel less in the process, but that in the end was for her benefit. This power through isolation seems part of Michalopoulou’s own sense of herself, or perhaps lack thereof, as a Greek writer: she told George Fragopoulos in an interview, “I always felt very alone in literature, as a human being I mean, sitting there writing. Of course I had my experiences, my background, but not that I belonged to categories like ‘female writer,’ or ‘Greek writer,’ or ‘young writer under the age of thirty-five.’ No, I don’t feel that way.” That’s how we come to see Maria, too, for if she could exert a gravitational pull on Anna, honest or not, then she must have had enough of her own orbit to eventually ripen and fall in the absence of the events and people surrounding and always leaving her.
While we don’t have the privilege of experiencing it directly from Anna’s point of view, her honesty is perhaps even more poignantly reflected in the artifacts through which she’s remembered in the novel’s conclusion. Not only do we read of the journalistic coverage of the events that left Anna dead (the title is intentionally misleading, but in the arch way that Michalopoulou used in I’d Like), but we see examples of her secret poetry, including one dedicated to Maria, from 1989, which includes the lines: “I want to be your digestion and your hunger, too. / Look: tomato sauce stains my lips, like yours. / You bite me and make me bleed.” Here, we finally see Anna’s need, her reflection as derived from others; in the end, she becomes part of the past not as the autonomous individual Maria knew her as but as a “mother of a six-year-old-girl,” the child who, as a student of Maria’s, had united the friends after years of separation and who will serve as Anna’s living ghost, now under Maria’s care.
In the final scene of the book, Maria composes an unsent letter to the now-dead Anna:
You were always storming off in anger, and then coming back again. I always thought those returns were the fruit of my tireless efforts to win you back, but you would have come back anyway. You needed that cycle of emotions in order to exist: enthusiasm, betrayal, anger, despair, forgiveness, then back to enthusiasm again. Only then, only thus, were you Anna.
Finally taking charge of Anna’s person, even in the very act of writing, Maria is no longer victim to Anna’s caprices. She’s met, far exceeded, and indeed outlived Anna’s high expectations and requirements for being worthy of calling her a friend. Maria had once suggested to an old friend that one day she’d write down their story in a novel, narrated by her, but whose title would be Anna’s: Why I Killed My Best Friend. It’s unclear who the “I” is there, even by the end of Michalopoulou’s novel, for in essence Maria would have needed to kill Anna for her own fictional purposes, although Anna seems to be doing most of the killing within the novel itself. Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.
Jennifer Kurdyla is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. She lives in New York City.