Last year I travelled to Crete with my boyfriend for a week’s holiday in the sun. The year before that I visited Kos with my friends. As you can tell, Greece, the Greek Islands and Greek culture are all things which I really enjoy and am fascinated by. I was quite surprised then, that previous to my last holiday in Crete, I had never heard of Victoria Hislop’s book The Island. It was only due to the fact that the Greek Island on which we were staying was situated in a fairly close proximity to the historical site of Spinalonga, that I was told about the book which uses the Island in its narrative. Even the small gift shop within the hotel sold numerous copies of this book, so it would have been rude not to engage with the local historical fiction and buy a copy!. Feeling rather sorry for myself that I was unable to go on holiday this year, I picked this book up in the hopes of reigniting the holiday feeling. Now, with the summer fast fading here in Wales, I am finally posting this review in the hopes of once again capturing that summer feeling.
For those of you who don’t know, the island of Spinalonga is infamous for having been a leper colony from 1903 to 1957. It was quite literally an island off the mainland on which those who were infected could be safely removed from society, kept on the island until their death. Spinalonga was an island masked in fear and mystery for both those free from the disease, and also those who were about to make the presumed last journey of their life into the unknown.
This novel is best described as a family saga crossed with historical fiction. The novel initiates with Alexis Fielding, a keen historian living in London with Greek family ties, yet a young woman who knows barely anything about her heritage. Her own mother, Sofia, grew up in a small Cretan village, yet refuses to divulge the secrets of her past to her daughter. What follows is the journey of Alexis, not only physically to Crete, but also emotionally and historically as she makes the decision to find out the truth of her past for herself. Meeting an old friend of her mothers in Plaka, the town on which her mother was born, and a town closely situated to the island of Spinaglonga, Alexis finally learns the history of not only her mother, but also her grandmother and her aunts past. The novel is a refreshing insight into the ways in which the island could affect those not only situated there, but also those left behind on the mainland, and a recognition of how the past can infringe upon the present.
This book uses three time frames, each one following Alexis, Alexis’s mother, or Alexis’s grandmother. Through this temporal device the writer allows us to follow the lives of each woman in turn, and shows us the impact that family history and family ties can have upon future outcomes. I am by no means an expert on Cretan history, but I am lead to believe that there is a limited knowledge of the environment of Spinalong available. Whilst this means we have to acknowledge the limitations the author faced, it is also extremely self evident within the book that Hislop has tried to retain as much historcal accuracy as possible, whilst keeping an enjoyable read which brings this rather neglected (from a western perspective) piece of history to life. We are given a multitude of facts and information regarding this piece of history, yet it does not feel over-saturated or tiresome. The book approaches the idea of stigma and stereotypes, in this instance towards a disease, in a truthful but compassionate way which really does make you aware of your own humility and humanity.
For anyone who has travelled to Greece, or more specifically Crete, this is sure to be an enjoyable read purely from a cultural perspective. The book mentions places such as Knossos, Spinalonga, Iraklion and Hersonisos, all places which inspired excitement and remembrance as I read and found myself wistfully wishing to be immersed in Greek life once again. Likewise, certain traditional Greek food also inspired a fond remembrance as I read of Moussaka and Raki. It certainly comes across that the author has a great love for this culture from the way in which she depicts Cretan life.
The story itself is established rather quickly, and we are aware from the offset what is happening. The use of split time frames managed to keep a clear and coherent voice, each easily distinguishable from the other parts of history which are being related. What I will say however, is that the strengths for this book really do lie within the Island of Spinalogna and the characters and plot which are centered there. The character of Eleni and her time on the Island are by far the most interesting and also engaging. I felt like I was absorbing so much truth about the realities of Spinalonga – some admittedly bad but others surprisingly pleasant and good. Eleni really made the historical aspects feel personal and emotional in a way which I struggled to achieve to such a degree with many of the other characters which resided on mainland Crete. I have never read anything before about a leper colony or indeed anything from this period and culture within history, so perhaps this contributed to the success of Eleni’s story. In comparison, the tales of her daughters and other friends seemed much more mundane and paled in comparison with the strength Eleni was presented with.
I also found some of the conversations held within this book as rather stilled and staged, and often remembered that this was in fact a piece of fiction which was being controlled by an author.
I have heard of this book being described as a ‘Beach Book’, and in many ways I think this modern phrase is rather demeaning. Whilst it is an easy, enjoyable read, which would be a perfect companion to take on holidays and abroad, this book has so much more to offer than just being a quick page turner. This book is saturated in not only the history of Greece and Greek Islands, but also in the culture and fantastic local people. It established quite easily an authentic (as far as a British holiday maker can see) tone of Greek life, and would be a great place to start for anyone keen to learn more about this culture and history in general. And of course, it would still make a fabulous ‘Beach Book’ for any upcoming holidays.
Publisher: Headline Review (Imprint of Headline Publishing)