Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend is an intense and evocative examination of female friendship. The story begins when nine-year-old Maria arrives in Greece, an immigrant to her parents’ homeland. Maria had been born in Nigeria to a highly-paid oil company executive and his stay-at-home wife and reared under the watchful eyes of African servants she loved as much, if not more, than her actual mom and dad. Her abrupt removal from the town of Ikeja stuns the child; alone with her mother for the first time in her life, she longs for the familiar sights, sounds and smells of her homeland. But it is not to be.
Instead, she is taunted by her Greek classmates and bullied. She’s miserable, and despite maternal assurances that “Greece is our real home. Africa is the fake one,” nothing feels right to the precocious child. After all, her dad is still abroad, her mom seems irritable and depressed, and every school day is complete and utter torture.
Enter Anna. Like Maria, Anna is new to Athens, having been reared in Paris by parents who are also Greek citizens. Additional parallels between the two further add to the allure: Anna’s dad lives apart from her and her mom and she is similarly horrified by the rigid third-grade classes she is forced to attend.
In short order, the two bond, but it’s a fraught love-hate relationship from day one, with the beautiful, imperious and charismatic Anna calling most of the shots and the quieter, more thoughtful Maria following Anna’s constantly-shifting whims like an obedient—if occasionally insolent—puppy.
Not surprisingly, as the pair come of age strains and fractures rise to the surface and an unspoken competition ensues. Indeed, as adulthood beckons, every aspect of their lives becomes a minefield, from sexual conquests to political activism to finding their place in the world. It’s tense and at times awful to see them tear into one another and vie for recognition. At the same time, their dyad is built on a foundation of shared childhood anomie and they communicate easily, with an intimacy that rivals the deepest emotional union. In fact, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that their affinity is bound by deep, albeit prickly, platonic love. Still, when all is said and done, old patterns hold tight and the pair remain locked into unhealthy behavioral patterns.
That said, suffice it to say that, book title notwithstanding, neither friend kills the other. One does die, however, and the loss precipitates an insightful analysis of power, insecurity and authenticity. These revelations are quite moving and reveal stark truths about personality and character formation.
There are also important revelations about how and why some of us are motivated to contest social inequities, whether racism, classism, homophobia, or prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS. In fact, Why I Killed My Best Friend can be classified as a political novel—the pushes and pulls of Greek politics and fluctuating economic conditions form a fascinating backdrop to Anna and Maria’s story. Nonetheless, it is the women’s personal machinations—the way they both support and undermine one another– that grounds the novel. In addition, since neither Anna nor Maria are wholly likeable, the story is resonant and thoroughly believable.
What’s more, while the specifics of their antics will likely set them apart from most of us, anyone who had ever clung to a relationship for longer than they should have will find wisdom in in Michalopoulou’s tale of love, loss, jealousy and conflict.
Why I Killed My Best Friend, by Amanda Michalopoulou, Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich, Originally published in 2003, English translation published by Open Letter at the University of Rochester in 2014, 257 pages, $13.95.