Review of The Brink of Freedom

The Brink of Freedom

Over the past two years, the European Union has struggled to cope with an escalating migrant crisis. EU member countries received nearly 1.2 million asylum applications in 2015—more than double the previous year. On the front lines of this crisis, Greece saw some 124,000 people land on its shores during the first half of 2015 alone. Meanwhile, the weight of Greece's crushing austerity measures continues to grow in cruel defiance of the country's rising taxes. Trapped in the squeeze of this impossible situation, the characters in Stella Leventoyannis Harvey's The Brink of Freedom do their best at survival. The novel unfolds in Athens, the point of arrival for tens of thousands of undocumented migrants entering the EU from points south and east. At the story's centre are Sanjit, the only child of a family that together has made the arduous journey from India, and Shelby, the Canadian aid worker who effectively buys him. From the perspectives of characters caught up in this drama, Harvey probes at the complexities of the migrant crisis and what it means to offer help.

The novel opens with Sanjit's father, Vijay, who, in the course of his informal work as a scrap collector at the margins of Greek society, is captured and impounded by authorities. Although Sanjit's mother, Saphal, is content to put down roots in the neighbourhood of Athens where they have landed, Vijay recognizes the predicament of their illegal residency in Greece and sets his sights on a more prosperous life elsewhere. To boost the odds of success in the perilous onward journey to Germany, Vijay insists that Saphal accompany him and that Sanjit, too small and frail to travel easily, remain behind in Athens. A few months later, when Canadian aid worker Shelby Holt arrives in Athens after a botched mission to Zimbabwe, she redirects her humanitarian efforts to a Roma encampment near her home and takes a shine to Sanjit, now living among them as Bo. Meanwhile, back in Canada, Shelby's son, Ted, has finally begun to confront the abuse and neglect of his past that for years he numbed with alcohol. When Bo and Shelby's stories become entangled, the personal meets the political—and vice versa—as the uneasy past of the two Canadians boils over into the lives of those around them.

As a work of literary scholarship and political activism, The Brink of Freedom is outstanding. Based on thorough research, interviews, and first-hand experiences abroad, the novel is a rigorous, carefully balanced, and realistic account of one of the largest and most complex issues of the twenty-first century. Harvey makes it clear that there is no master narrative when it comes to the question of migration, that the stories, perspectives, and politics are complicated and contradictory. Through the experiences and voices of an international cast of characters, we see the desperation that contributes to migration and to the racism and xenophobia that it too often encounters. We also witness the damage that can be so easily wrought by well-intentioned but ill-informed outsiders.

The novel is also an insightful study of shades of power and marginality. Despite its relative impoverishment within the European Union, Greece is a well-off country compared to the homelands of the migrants who arrive on its shores. Shelby, a middle-aged and newly unemployed widow, is marginal within her own society yet wields the power inherent to her citizenship and race when working internationally. Within the complex layers of authority and exclusion, even the disenfranchised find ways to exert their relative power on the lives of others and cycles of abuse and oppression are perpetuated. Sanjit's surrogate father, Kem, asks himself whether he will always be the victim of oppressors, without seeing the ways in which he mimics the same abusive oppression on the less powerful characters around him. The book carries us down a ladder of oppressor and oppressed to an infirm child at the bottom rung.

The book's political agenda is its main strength yet at times becomes its literary weakness. The fact-laden dialogue and descriptions can be pedantic while the main characters and their interrelationships slide into well-worn norms. With the exception of Christos, the men in the novel are, to varying degrees, manipulative, abusive, misogynist, violent, and alcoholic. The women, on the other hand, are a badly abused set of victims of male whims and vices, short on agency or self-awareness, and submissive to their husbands and their own familial cravings. Harvey takes pains to show that, although more economically and politically secure, the Canadian characters are no less troubled than the impoverished and tradition-bound migrants. Despite her professional training as a social worker, Shelby has spent her adult life blind to the violent abuse of her own marriage in which her young son repeatedly rescued her from the ravages of an alcoholic husband. Rather than venture into the dangerous territory of her own psyche, Shelby capitulates to a pathological drive to "help," interfering disastrously in Sanjit's life in a desperate and misguided attempt at self-redemption. An uncomfortable amount of the book is spent in the head of Shelby's damaged son, Ted, who details the abuse suffered at the hands of both parents as well as a teacher at boarding school.

Overall, The Brink of Freedom succeeds in challenging easy notions of migrant and resident, victim and saviour. While illustrating the many shades of Greek hospitality and violence, it also paints a complicated picture of first-world assistance, depicting a version of individual philanthropy carried to ruinous extremes. This theme is echoed in an epigraph in which Plutarch cautions "the real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits." The lesson, voiced peevishly by a Greek civil servant, is that a more straightforward version of generosity and care is in order: "Why don't they send money instead?"

As in The Malahat Review, 196, Autumn 2016, 111-113

— Emily McGiffin The Malahat Review

More Reviews of this title

The Brink of Freedom

The Brink of Freedom is an excellent, fast-paced, tense, and extremely timely novel by skilled Whistler writer Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, which deftly weaves the stories of migrant families risking their lives only to wind up in the squalid refugee camps of Greece amidst their crumbling economy and fraying social infrastructure. This book is the modern refugee plight from the inside looking out, and the must-read for our times.

— Grant Lawrence Westender

The Brink of Freedom

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey's new novel The Brink of Freedom tells the story of desperate searches for new beginnings.

The ensemble cast is struggling to escape in so many ways — to shed some shameful aspect of the person they've become, or seek liberation from the miseries of poverty and violence. Set in Greece, the book takes place at the convergence of the country's economic crisis and the humanitarian disaster of refugees seeking asylum.

The plot has tapped directly into the vein of the current European migrant catastrophe, although Harvey has been researching and writing the book for the last three years. Cairo-born and of Greek parentage, Harvey's investigation led her to Greek detention centres and Roma camps, and to interview many refugees and ordinary Greeks.

In the book a young migrant couple, originally from India, leaves Greece to search for a better life in Germany.

They leave their sickly son Bo with another couple, Mirela and Kem, in a Roma camp. The conditions are filthy, and the Roma scrounge for scraps of food out of garbage dumps. Shelby Holt, a Canadian aid worker, befriends the family. She offers to give Bo an education, and a better life.

Soon Shelby and Kem end up in prison over the apparent "sale" of the boy. A kind police officer, Christos, tries to unravel the truth, but walks a tightrope between his instinct that there is no villain in the tale, and his unsympathetic boss, Commander Kefalas, who calls the migrants "cockroaches."

Bo is sent to live with Christos and his family, but he misses his mother. Believing he must return to the Roma camp to wait for his mother's return, he escapes. This sets in motion a panicked search, and a series of events that upends the lives of all those drawn together by the small, ailing boy.

There are a couple points in the novel at which the timing of events and intersections of the characters felt a touch too handy, too coincidental. However, this is a small criticism in the face of the emotional truths and depths Harvey plumbs with her characters.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is the shades of nuance in their personas. There are no out-and-out villains (with the exception of the power-hungry Kefalas).

In The Brink of Freedom, each character struggles to be good, to do better, though they may be hobbled and misguided by their own histories of abandonment and abuse. Yet for all the damage abandonment has done — by mothers and fathers and governments — it has not robbed any of them of hope. Even in the darkest times there is the chance to change, to find asylum, to start over and have a new life.

— Rebecca Wood Barrett Pique News Magazine

The Brink of Freedom

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey was born in Cairo, Egypt and moved to Calgary as a child with her family. In 2001, Harvey founded the Whistler Writers Group, which each year produces the Whistler Writers Festival under her direction. This is her second novel.

Q: Tell us about your book.

A: Every day, desperate people at the mercy of smugglers flee conflict zones, crossing the Mediterranean in the hopes of using Greece as the conduit to a better life elsewhere. Thousands perish in their attempts. This novel follows the lives of those who flee and the people who try to help them.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I lived in Europe from 1997 to mid-2000, first in England, then in Italy. It wasn’t until I moved to Italy that the issue of asylum seekers came into focus. Nightly, the discovery and detainment of yet another boatload of rifugiati was reported on the Italian news. The problem continued to grow, further exacerbated by growing conflict in the Middle East. Suddenly, large numbers of people were on the move, many of them using the Mediterranean as their way into Europe. In 2014, 43,500 refugees arrived in Greece by sea according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). On Sept. 25, 2015, the UNHCR reported 388,324 people reached Greek shores by sea in the first nine months of 2015. But this mass migration was already evident when I was in Greece in 2012 finishing my novel, Nicolai’s Daughters. I saw many refugees and Roma from various countries on the streets of Athens and what struck me was the attitude of Greeks towards them. Some tried to help them, while others saw them as a threat to their already fragile country. Greece was in its fourth year of recession by 2012. The far right-wing party Golden Dawn was also on the rise, in the news for attacks by its followers on foreigners. I wondered what had happened to the famous Greek filoxenía (hospitality). In 1989, among all the countries in Europe, Greece was awarded the Eurobarometer, hailed as the country most tolerant and welcoming to migrants. I kept asking myself what had changed. I also wondered how I would feel if I were in a refugee’s shoes. What would I do? I was an immigrant to Canada myself, once. I didn’t want to draw conclusions from the headlines.

Q: Tell us about your experience researching this book.

A: I met with the consulate general of Greece in Vancouver, Ilias Kremmydas, who asked me to submit a proposal, which he forwarded to the Greek embassy in Ottawa. I was put in touch with Elena Soupiana at the secretariat general of information and communications in Athens. Elena set up the meetings I requested and was my go-to person in Athens. I was able to go to Amygdaleza, the largest refugee detention centre in Greece. The facility was imposing: high fences topped with razor wire, gun-toting police officers everywhere. I was struck by the sincere desire of the staff there to make a positive difference in the lives of those they worked with. Later I met with counsellors at the asylum service of the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection in Athens. I spoke with a serious young Afghan boy who was waiting for his parents as they met with their counsellor. His family had been in Greece for months waiting to hear about their asylum request, but he wasn’t sure the government was going to let his family stay. I visited a Roma camp because the Roma also factor in my novel, spoke with the head of the International Organization for Migration (Athens) and many others, including asylum seekers.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Some people have asked me if I was ever afraid when I was going into detention centres and camps. The short answer is no. But let’s face it: I could leave the confines of the detention centre, the crowded compound of the asylum service and the squalor of the Roma camp. The refugees can’t. They are the brave ones.

The Vancouver Sun

The Brink of Freedom

Harvey tackles refugee crisis in new novel
The Brink of Freedom to be launched at Whistler Writers Festival event on Oct. 17

When Whistler author Stella Harvey set out to write a novel about refugees in Greece three years ago, she had no idea that its release would be so timely.

The Brink of Freedom, her second novel, follows six characters that are entrenched in the refugee crisis, focusing particularly on two men who are struggling for a better life. In her research, Harvey (also founder of the Whistler Writers Festival) travelled to Greece three times to visit a refugee detention centre and conduct interviews with refugees, police officers, aid workers and government officials.

The Question sat down with Harvey last Thursday (Oct. 1), the day the book was officially released, to find out more.

The Question: Obviously this idea wasn’t sparked by the recent crisis. It’s something you’ve been thinking about for a long time. Where did the idea come from?

Stella Harvey: I went back to Greece in 2012 to finish research on my first book (Nicolai’s Daughters). We rented an apartment and were living close to a Roma camp there. The police came and tore it down. Everybody was thrown out. At the same time we were seeing refugees coming from other parts of Europe. I had lived in Europe from ‘97 to mid-2000. I lived in Rome for two years. It was still a crisis then. It’s never left me. I went to Spain and spent six weeks in Spain in 2006 and again the refugee crisis was a thing in Europe. We didn’t hear about it in Canada. The number of people who came through the Mediterranean has been huge. It’s only been recently that North Americans have woken up to it. But having lived in Europe in the mid-90s it’s always been a big issue.

Q: Tell me about some of the interviews you did and what that added to the book.

SH: I have to say the Greek government was just incredible. I phoned the Greek consular general and asked to meet with him. I went down and met with him and told him the kind of book I was writing and why I thought it was important. He suggested I put a proposal together about who I wanted to talk to and what I wanted to do, which I came back and I did. I said I wanted to go to a detention centre and walk through the refugee process.I read about the asylum service in Greece and the process refugees were going through. I wanted to go to a Roma camp. I wanted to talk to someone with expertise in Golden Dawn (a far-right political party in Greece). I had already started writing the book and I really wanted to flesh out the details, bringing it to life. I obviously have some impressions. I was an immigrant as a kid coming to Canada, but that’s totally different. You’re legal, but you still have feelings about how you become accepted.

Q: What exactly is the book about?

SH: There are six different characters, but the book is really about people who flee their countries — the reasons behind that and the people who are asked to take them in. It’s a story of two people who are in that position. One is a Roma gypsy and his family. The other is a family from northern India. What’s interesting to me, why I did that is because neither one are from war-torn countries, so that makes it different. People have less compassion, basically. Because of the Geneva Convention, no country can return (refugees) to a war-torn country… They’re more the economic refugees. With the (Indian) man he’s a person who’s married and the caste system is involved and he’s been threatened. It’s their story, but it’s also the story of the people who help him. The aid worker, the Greek police… It’s the story of those who try to flee their country and what happens — to Greek society in particular, given the economic strife. And what happens to aid workers — being a social worker myself — does it ever come to the point where an aid worker can go too far in trying to help?

Q: What did you think when this started becoming such an issue in North America as you were preparing to put this book out into the world?

SH: I didn’t really think about the book at all. I was more thinking, “why aren’t we taking more people?” The whole issue of security — for Pete’s sake you look at these people, there’s an 82-year-old grandmother. There’s a five-year-old kid. There are families with three or four children. That’s what I was thinking. I was getting upset. For me I feel we should do more.  

Q: You’re donating some of the proceeds from the book to the Red Cross for the rest of the year. Why did you decide to do that?

SH: Both the publishers and I decided to do it. Being here after being there I now feel useless. I’m a trained social worker. I know this situation inside and out. I have a bit of language skill whether it’s Greek or French or Italian. I could get by. Why am I not there helping or doing something? The Red Cross has done a lot and with that (organization) we can target it specifically to refugees in Greece.

Q: What do you hope people take away from this book?

SH: I guess just a glimpse into what another person might be dealing with. Someone at an event said, “There are no heroes. The characters are flawed.” The reality is it’s the human condition. What interests me is what motivates somebody to act in this way and what motivates someone to act this other way. When it’s your life, your child’s life, when you’re in the ocean in the stupid dinghy which can’t get the 20 km from Turkey because it’s sprung a leak with 50 people on there and little babies — what motivates a person to save a life or to rescue themselves? What motivates you when your back is against the wall? That’s what interests me. I think people react differently.

Q: You’re doing a book tour. Do you expect to be fielding questions about the crisis?
SH: I hope so. I know a lot. The thing I feel self-conscious about is I know a lot, but I’m not an expert. I’ve gone in, I’ve lived in certain places, have had an opportunity to interview a bunch of people, talk to a bunch of people and I have had a glimpse of it, but I don’t want to come across as an expert. I want to come across as, “this is my experience.” This is how I felt. This is all the stuff that happened while I was there.

Stella Harvey will be launching her book at a free event as part of the Whistler Writers Festival on Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at The Fairmont. The Brink of Freedom is available now at Armchair Books. For more information on the festival, which is running from Oct. 15 – 18 visit

— Alyssa Noel Whistler Question

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