First, let it be known that I haven’t reviewed a book since writing a really bad one about Under The Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy for my O level English Literature exam. Needless to say I failed the exam but have always blamed the fact that I was suffering from sunstroke (it was the long, hot summer of ’75) rather than the fact that I was rubbish!
I decided to join my WI’s newly formed book club to encourage me to read something other than the usual chick lit that I had slipped into picking over the last few years. I wanted to read something a little more taxing and explore other genres. I tend to steer clear of historical novels or science fiction, but could well be missing out on some great books by ignoring them on the shelf.
When I was handed a copy of our book clubs first choice, I recognised the title and the author’s name, but that was as much as I knew about the book.What first caught my attention though when reading the blurb was that the island in question was Spinalonga just off of the coast of Crete. When I was in my early 20’s I went on an 18-30 holiday to Agios Nikolaos. Back then it wasn’t all about sun, sex and booze. Swap booze cruises of today for cultural excursions of then. One of the stops on one such excursion was to Elounda which overlooks the island. Sadly I opted out of the trip to Spinalonga preferring to go shopping instead!
Spinalonga used to be used a leper colony up until the late 1950’s. It is now abandoned but the deserted and ruined houses and buildings remain as a sombre reminder of its past.
The Island is an epic tale written by Victoria Hislop and is set over a time span of 60 plus years. It focuses on the lives of a family who live in the small Cretan village of Plaka which is just a short boat trip from Spinalonga. The book begins in the present, when a young woman called Alexis who is at a crossroads of her life, decides she wants to discover her mother’s mysterious past. She visits Plaka, the place where her mother spent her early childhood, and seeks out Fontina who has over the years corresponded with Alexis’s mother Sofia and who has been instructed to tell her daughter the history of her family.
We are whisked back to 1939. At that time leprosy had not been eradicated from Europe. It was a disease that was feared and as yet, uncurable.The stigma of being unclean remained as it had done since biblical times. In Greece, to contract Leprosy meant being sent to Spinalonga almost instantly for the rest of your life and having no further contact with your loved ones or the outside world. You went there to die.
A well-loved teacher, Elani and her young pupil have contacted the disease and their fate has been sealed. They are taken to the island by her husband who regularly rows over to take supplies to the small community. Standing on the quay, distraught about losing their mother, are her two young daughters Anna and Maria.
On the island Elani meets the other inhabitants. Life is hard there without a decent water supply and no electricity. Over time improvements are made and the quality of life gets better, although sadly Elani’s health deteriorates.The years pass. Crete suffers when it is taken by the Germans during WW2. Elani’s daughters grow up into equally beautiful women but with very different characters. Over the ensuing years we follow their lives, their loves, friendships, anguish and a cruel case of history repeating its self. We also read of deceit, betrayal, tragedy and happiness. Finally the story brings us back to the present.
I was worried that I was going to struggle to finish the book in the six days I had given myself to read it in. But this is a book that once you pick it up, you struggle to put it back down again. Sometimes I had to remind myself that sleep was important and forced myself to stop reading it. The story is easy to read and beautifully written. Victoria Hislop’s wonderful descriptions of her characters, settings and life in a small Cretan fishing community transports you into the world of Elani, her family and the community she calls home, both in Plaka and Spinalonga. I particularly enjoyed learning about Greek traditions which are often related to the church, and about Leprosy itself.
My only criticism is that I thought that the ending was a little rushed and that some characters could have been developed more. I’m afraid I felt like shaking the saintly youngest daughter some times. To me, she came across as a bit soppy. But then that’s just my opinion.
I now hanker to return to Crete. To explore rather than to soak up the sun and I definitely want to make that short trip over to Spinalonga. The shops can wait until another time.
Rating this book I would give it an 8 out of 10. Do read it. You won’t be disappointed!