Victoria Hislop: The Island (review)

Disclaimer: I read this novel in 2015 but even though I wrote the review at the time, never published it.

IMG_9115This year for our summer holiday, we went to Crete in Greece. A beautiful island. Our favorite part of the trip was the day we visited the small island Spinalonge close to Crete. Spinalonga has seen it’s part of history through the ages. The Venetians fortified the island in the 16th century and later, the Ottomans took over the island. But what interests me the most and the reason why we went to visit the island, was the fact that it was a leper colony from 1903 to 1957.

islandWhen we visited, our tour guide mentioned a novel taking place on Spinalonga. I managed to track down the novel in a store on Crete. Apparently, Victoria Hislop visited Spinalonga and was fascinated by the island and it’s history and got inspired to write a family saga where part of it takes place on Spinalonga.

The frame for the story is Alexis Fielding, a young woman whose Greek mother Sofia is withdrawn and never talks about her past. Alexis goes on vacation to Crete with her boyfriend, Sofia gives her a letter to one of her childhood friends and tells her to ask her about the past.

Alexis then learns about her great-grandmother Eleni who was a school teacher who became a leper and had to leave her husband and two daughters and go live on the island just across the water. Eleni builds a life for herself on the island and becomes part of the society which is thriving on the island.

Meanwhile, her two daughters choose very different paths. Anna is ambitious while Maria is more caring. Anna manages to get the son of the richest family in the area to marry her and while the marriage is not exactly a happy one, she finds ways to entertain herself. Her sister Maria stays home and watches their father.

But this is not a family destined for happy endings. And out of both love and tragedy, a little girl Sofia is born. A child who grows up and suddenly finds her world shattered and decides to leave her home and family for good. And only her daughter Alexis’ return to Crete, brings Sofia full circle and face to face with her past.

I think my favorite character was Giorgis, Eleni’s husband and Maria and Anna’s father. He was just a man who carried on despite adversity and when he lost his wife, he did his best to take care of his girls. He went to the island every day, ferrying goods and people to Spinalonga. He kept on going to the island and he did so while listening to his friends talking pejoratively about the lepers out of fear and stupidity.

But still, even though I enjoyed this character, overall the characters felt a bit flat. They felt one-sided and not all that developed. Anna was all just driven by her ambition and her needs and desires while Maria is all good and caring. There is not much development.

I really enjoyed parts of this novel. The storyline taking place on Spinalonga and detailing the lives of the people exiled to live here, was fascinating and interesting. Unfortunately, a lot of the novel didn’t take place here and the family drama became a bit too much. Add to this that the storyline framing the main story was a bit bland and predictable. I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed the novel as much if I hadn’t been to Spinalonga and seen the remains of the houses and streets where the lepers walked.

First line: Plaka, 1953. A cold wind whipped through the narrow streets of Plaka and the chill of the autumnal air encircled the woman, paralyzing her body and mind with a numbness that almost blocked her senses but could do nothing to alleviate her grief.

  • Title: The Island
  • Author: Victoria Hislop
  • Publisher: Headline Review
  • Year: 2005
  • Pages: 489 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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