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Bitter Lake by Marika Deliyannides  

Past, present, and future collide when an unhappily pregnant, mid-thirties woman visits her childhood home near the shores of Bitter Lake.

Professional organizer Zoe Lemonopolous finds herself in her mid-thirties, well employed, married to a sensible and kind if dull dentist—and pregnant. She’s agreed to have the baby but cannot imagine herself as a mother. Although her life has all the hallmarks of the successful adult existence she was sure she wanted, she senses her life spiralling out of control. Everything is further turned upside down when she reluctantly agrees to spend a week away from her carefully composed life in trendy downtown Calgary.

Zoe returns to rural Concord, her childhood home near the shores of Bitter Lake, to help pack her parents’ belongings and move them into seniors’ housing. There, she clashes terribly with her troubled younger sister, is shocked by the signs of her parents’ aging, and has a passionate affair with an old high school crush, Kyle, who makes her wonder what might have been.

On the shores of Bitter Lake, Zoe must come to grips with the tragically bad decision that has haunted her family for decades so that she can put the past behind her and begin charting the course of her future.


2015—ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year Award,


2015—City of Calgary, W O Mitchell Award,


2015—Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards,


2015—Canadian Authors - Exporting Alberta Award,

Review text

Bitter Lake is an accomplished work on silence: what happens when families ignore a tragic moment.

A melancholic debut by Marika Deliyannides, Bitter Lake explores one woman’s "aching disquietude" and the latent complications of homecoming.

As Zoe Lemonopolous returns to her childhood home to help her parents move to a retirement villa, she confronts the fallout of a teenage incident that led to estrangement from her younger sister, Dorothea, and to her own ambivalence toward impending motherhood. Subtle in its gradual revelations and unapologetic in its characters’ avoidance of pain, this intelligent novel portrays the arrival of emotional maturity in Zoe’s thirties.

Domestic scenes of Zoe’s married life in Calgary and of her family’s home in rural Concord alternate with flashbacks to the 1980s in a contemplative plot that depicts the humiliations of youth, widening rifts between lovers, and Zoe’s abandonment of Dorothea, who comes to harm in her absence. Deliyannides, whose novel excerpt from Bitter Lake received The Calgary Foundation’s Brenda Strathern Prize, offers a nuanced perspective on regret. Guilt and desire mix with fear and complacency. Zoe’s tendency to "reframe" memories in ways that deflect blame—a frustrating habit—and to walk away from hard conversations quickly become an unbearable way to live. Careful scenes build toward a watershed that results in a fragile, tacit truce.

Scenes of Zoe packing her parents’ belongings temper darker topics, such as rape and infidelity. They also serve as effortless transitions between memories. The objects themselves, from eye-shaped charms to a lava lamp, reveal Zoe’s life as the daughter of a Greek father and Canadian mother. Zoe’s work as a professional organizer also allows her to make astute observations, including "It seemed my entire adult life had been about keeping things tidy instead of resolved." The recurring theme of imposing order on the external world while experiencing inner discord serves as a particularly thoughtful backdrop as Zoe attempts to push away her own increasing self-doubt.

While much of the focus remains on Zoe’s memories of being bullied, her tense relationship with her husband, and her failed attempt at reconnecting with a classmate from her past, it is her parents who emerge as imperfect, memorable forces. Their appearances, both in the present and past, and the physical reminders of their decades together create a colorful portrait of lives shaped by struggle. The book is less rewarding when focusing on detailing moments of pettiness between Zoe and Dorothea; while this captures the strains in their relationship, Dorothea is left seeming merely distanced.

Bitter Lake is an accomplished work on silence: what happens when families ignore a tragic moment, and what happens when individuals refuse to accept their own fortunate circumstances. It is an unsettling, worthy read.

—Karen Rigby, Foreword Reviews

Review quote

Bitter Lake is a satisfying novel at every level, its complexity handled with skill. For me, it represents the kind of story I like best—a fast and thought-provoking read.’

—Pearl Luke, author of Burning Ground and Madame Zee

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‘The debut novel from Marika Deliyannides (short story writer and 2010 winner of the Brenda Strathern Prize) is a compelling account of one woman’s journey into the past and into the self. The faultlessly structured narrative pulls one through, easily, by both suspense and insight—we want to know what happens next, want to find out the tragedy hinted at from the start, want to know everything about our narrator. This is a novel with a serious drive to understand why people are the way they are.’

—Jasmina Odor, Alberta Views Magazine

Excerpt from book

I am trapped in my car.


A day so muddled by the grey sky that it appears winter is coming, not going.

A day at odds with itself.

I’ve been this way for over an hour, an uneasy hostage fettered by the steering wheel as my car moves me closer to my destination. A glaze of sweat dampens my upper lip; my stomach tightens in a queasy knot. I take a deep breath and hold it in my lungs. Is there any journey so filled with apprehension as the one that leads you home?

It’s as though a greater force, something manipulating me beyond my better judgment, has reached out its meddling hand to pluck my black Honda Civic from its regular city life and deposit it on this rural highway, where cars move forward cautiously through the sleet of the early Alberta spring. The highway is an assembly line, and I’m just one piece of the moving creation, to be spit out only when my final shape has been realized.

The reason for my reluctance is no mystery—

Seven days ago, my sister, Dorothea, phoned from Concord, where she lives with my parents and her eight-year-old son, Ryan. She was calling about my parents’ move to the Vista Grande Retirement Villa. "So are you coming to help?" she asked, speaking too loudly as usual.

I pictured her at the beige wall phone in the kitchen of our old home with its worn checkerboard floor and avocado-green fridge, frowning as she looked out the large picture window bordered by ruffled curtains. Or perhaps she was in the downstairs rumpus room on the rust-brown velour sectional sofa, chosen by our mother years ago to match the knotty brown macramé plant hangers that had long been purged of their dried-up ferns.

"I’ll see what I can do." A coward’s response.

She saw through it, of course. "So that means no?" She snorted. "It figures!"

"For Christ’s sake, don’t act as though you’re the only one who ever shows up." Her voice rattled me, as it always did. Because her left ear is deaf from a deformity known as cauliflower ear (a condition usually reserved for professional boxers), she’s prone to talking in a near yell.

"Well show up then, and give me a hand. These boxes aren’t going to pack themselves."

"Our bathroom’s in the middle of being retiled," I objected, cutting into a bag of plaster with a utility knife.

"I’ve got Ryan to look after and my midterms are coming up. Anyway, I do enough around here."

I clutched the knife in my hand. I’d taken on another home-renovation project, keen to replace the old black ceramic tiles, which constantly needed to be wiped dry of water spots. "Are you kidding me?" Calvin had said when he came home to find boxes of limestone tiles stacked like a dam in the front hall. "Should you even be lifting those boxes?"

Dorothea’s shrill voice twisted my insides out. I owed my sister—and not just for the crumpled, useless ear. The childhood accident that caused the disfigurement was only a precursor. I could hardly refuse her request to come home. "Okay," I acquiesced, sliding the blade back into its sheath. "I’ll be there."

(Continued in Bitter Lake...)

Unpublished endorsement

Replete with keenly observed details and a gentle narrative thrust, this is a skillfully told story about an adult daughter coming home to help her parents move into a seniors’ lodge. Long-buried skeletons topple out of the closet as the woman recalls some of the often painful and guilty memories of her childhood with a younger sister from whom she is now estranged, and an old-country father with a heavy accent who used to make her feel embarrassed when she was among friends. The specificity of details in this piece draws the reader into a warm and quirky world that is full of surprises.

—The Brenda Strathern Writing Prize


Born in Edmonton to immigrant parents, Marika Deliyannides lived in Greece for a short time before moving back to Alberta at the age of six. Her family lived in a rural town that shares many similarities with the fictional town of Concord—including the nearby lake where teenagers cruised on summer nights. Bitter Lake is her literary debut. An excerpt of the book was awarded the Brenda Strathern Prize for most promising first fiction and was also published in Alberta Views Magazine as winner of its annual fiction contest.

Deliyannides is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s English program, has published several short stories in literary magazines, and has been a business writer in Edmonton and Calgary, producing magazine articles, business copy and speeches.

She lives with her husband and two children, working from her home office overlooking the oil and gas towers of downtown Calgary.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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FICTION / Literary


ISBN-13: 9780889843745

Publication Date: 2014-08-15

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 176

Price: $19.95