At last - a beach book with a heart
The Island by Victoria Hislop Review £14.99, pp320
It takes a brave writer to set her first novel on a Greek island, to populate it with an assortment of eccentric characters and follow the turbulent love lives of the women. All this against a backdrop of the Second World War. Brave because one might imagine that Louis de Bernières's Captain Corelli's Mandolin had already cornered the market in quirky Mediterranean love stories.
Victoria Hislop, however, has found a very different island, off Crete, for her first book. It is called Spinalonga and it is where lepers were banished to die.
Her story begins in London with Alexis Fielding, a self-assured young woman compelled to discover more about her Cretan mother's past, a past she is mysteriously unwilling to discuss. Her journey takes her back to Crete and to an old family friend who narrates Alexis's family history through three tumultuous generations.
The backbone of her tale is the relationship between two very different sisters: vibrant Anna who is as ambitious as she is beautiful, and Maria, obedient, sensible and faithful. While it might seem as though we've seen these types many times before, along with the loyal but dull husband, the lover who turns out to be a cad, the lovelorn widower who all also appear in the book, The Island fascinates when it shifts to Spinalonga.
Leprosy may be the world's oldest known disease, but it is also one of its most misunderstood. To the fishermen and their families on Crete who can see the leper colony, the first symptom - dry, numb patches on the skin - is to be dreaded. Leprosy, they imagine, is highly contagious. It means a slow and agonising path to death, cast out by loved ones and forced to live out your days with an incurable illness.
The revelation is that, in Hislop's imagination, Spinalonga is more civilised than many aspects of the mainland. There are deaths but there are marriages, too. These are people imprisoned behind fortressed walls but they have rights and freedoms that gradually come to heal.
In many respects, despite its meticulous research into Cretan culture, Hislop has written a beach novel predictably packed with family sagas, doomed love affairs, devastating secrets. However, she also forces us to reflect on illness, both the nasty, narrow-mindedness of the healthy and the spirit of survival in the so-called 'unclean'. Her message seems as relevant today as it would have been a century ago. Same prejudice, different disease.
This review first appeared in The Observer (UK)
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