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Fear of Light: A story of photophobia that haunts a village community

Coming from the pen of successful author and University of Cambridge PhD Julietta Harvey, Fear of Light is a new work of fiction from the Greek wordsmith that is based on a real-life story.

Largely written during lockdown and published on October 31 by Starhaven, the novel – Julietta’s third – tells the story of a young woman named Fotini who is discovered locked in a cellar in a rather primitive mountain village. Fotini is suffering from photophobia – fear of light.

Julietta Harvey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Julietta Harvey. Picture: Keith Heppell

Her story, which dates back to the Greek Civil War of the 1940s – and which first emerged around the 1970s – is a story of lost love, of rebellion and of retribution. A slow silent crime has taken root, and Fotini’s situation has come to haunt the village. As her story becomes known, her anguished face stares out from the front pages of the newspapers, causing division and reviving ancient conflict.

The Cambridge Independent sat down with Julietta, who spends part of the year in Greece and part of the year in Cambridge, in a room at Emmanuel College, where her husband John, who is also an author, is a fellow.

“A few years ago I saw in the paper a story which frightened me and interested me a lot,” she explained. “It was a British newspaper and it was about a woman who had been locked in a cellar for I hate to think how many years. I was upset and interested and when I went out to Greece, I bought all the newspapers that covered that story, thinking vaguely that I would like to write about it.”

On the way from Athens up to the couple’s home in northern Greece, they stopped off at that village and Julietta saw the house where the daughter had been imprisoned. “In a way, that woman was already becoming a character in the novel which I had hardly decided to write,” she said.

“Then when we came back to England, I continued working on the novel I was writing at the time. Then when I finished my second novel, One Third of Paradise, I thought, ‘Now I’m going to write about this woman’. So I got all of my papers out, pictures, etc, and looked at them again, but then I put them aside.

“I didn’t want to think about the actual woman or what she looked like, or the village, because I wanted to start from scratch and write a novel rather than a bit of history, a bit of fiction, etc.”

Julietta Harvey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Julietta Harvey. Picture: Keith Heppell

Julietta says that one of the reasons she was attracted to the story was that “there has been a degree of secrecy, a tendency to lock up things, perhaps people, in my country in its history”. She continued: “There have been places or times in my early life in Greece where people would be locked up.”

She went on to recall living across the road from a medieval castle near the sea where people would have been imprisoned, remembers a feeling of being trapped when her father used to put an iron bar across the front door each night, and notes that people in Greece were often locked away in the belief that they were being protected.

“It was a good country in many ways but there was a tendency,” she said, adding: “Greece has a very difficult history. There were 400 years of the Ottoman Empire, then the German occupation in the Second World War, there was a civil war... so people needed to have somewhere to hide, or parents needed to have a way of protecting their children. There was this kind of mentality – so I think that climate may have been behind my interest in this story.”

Julietta has taught for the English faculty at the University of Cambridge and is an associate of Clare Hall, where she gained her PhD. She had earlier completed a masters at the University of Kansas, USA, and her first degree, in philology, was from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece.

[Read more: New novel from Cambridge author John Harvey opens a window into Rubens’ time, Cambridge author John Harvey’s first five novels reissued]

She has written for The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, The European newspaper, and Essays in Criticism. Julietta’s first two novels – Familiar Wars and One Third of Paradise – received enthusiastic reviews in the UK.

Familiars Wars was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the PEN/Macmillan Award (runner-up) and the Angel Award. It was translated into Norwegian, where it sold 10,000 copies in hardback and another 10,000 in paperback.

One Third of Paradise was runner-up for the worldwide London Hellenic Prize, open to all genres of books, from all English-speaking countries, on a Greek topic. For the writing of Fear of Light, Julietta received grants from the

Society of Authors and Eastern Arts. She is working on her fourth novel at present, also on a Greek subject.

Fear of Light is available at Heffers bookshop.

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