The Island by Victoria Hislop is a moving and dramatic tale of four generations, rent by
war, illicit love, violence and leprosy, from the thirties, through the war, to the present day. The book is located in Elounda, a small fishing island in Crete which back then belonged to the municipality of Agios Nikolaos. Opposite Elounda is Spinalonga (or officially known in Greece as Kalydon), the island which was used as a leper colony.
Alexis Fielding longs to find out about her mother’s past. But Sophia has never spoken of it. All she admits to is growing up in a small Cretan village before moving to London. When Alexis decided to visit Crete, Sophia gives her daughter a letter to take to an old friend and promises that through her she will learn everything she wished to know. Upon arriving in Elounda, Alexis discovers that Spinalonga is right across and decides to visit the island before finding her mother’s friend. She soon finds a local old (mute) fisherman to take her over and come back for her in two hours.
After her visit to Spinalonga, Alexis finds Fotini (her mother’s friend) and at last hears the story that Sofia has buried all her life: the tale of her great-grandmother Eleni and her daughters and a family rent by tragedy, war and passion. She discovers how intimately she is connected with the island, and how secrecy holds them all in its powerful grip. We are then taken back to 1939 and we are told what really happened.
As Barbara Love from the Library Journal stated ‘It would be hard to imagine a more cheerless setting for a novel than a leper colony on a remote Greek island, but the community of Spinalonga provides a remarkable backdrop for this affecting, multigenerational saga.’ Hislop’s deep research, imagination and potent love of Crete creates a convincing portrait of times on the island. Coming from Greece myself I can tell you that all the traditions, religious festivals and way of life is spot on and when reading the book, I was transported back to Greece and its many festivals celebrating a saint’s name and their namedays. Hislop manages ‘to milk the dramatic potential of each unexpected twist and broken engagement’ (The Times review).
Despite the fact that each person who was diagnosed with leprosy will eventually die, Hislop shows us that for them life remains the same and will go on until the inevitable. Even though they are ostracised (as it were) on the island of Spinalonga, they still go about their daily chores and shopping as they would before they were diagnosed. Depth and colour is added to the description of Cretan life and in particular, the vividly detailed account of life on Spinalonga. Hislop gives us a way into a leper’s life and stresses the agonies, fears, loses and troubles that someone diagnosed with leprosy faces. We always thought leprosy as a disease and want to stay well clear from it, but we never stop to think what the person with leprosy feels like and what he or she will go through. The Island shows us both sides of the disease and the lives that it will affect.
One of my favourite parts of the book is when Alexis was left alone on the island of Spinalonga and describes of what she found and how is felt
‘her dependency suddenly felt like a millstone and she resolved to pull herself together. She would embrace this period of solitude- her few hours of isolation were a mere pinprick of time compared with the life sentence of loneliness that past inhabitants of Spinalonga must have faced…. ‘
When reading this particular passive I felt sad and my heart went for the lepers. No-one knows how lonely these people felt and as Alexis walked through the village where the lepers would have lived, we see through her eyes that they lived a normal way. There was a café with chairs and tables where the inhabitants would gossip and talk about the latest tales of the world. There was a school where the children would go and gain an education. Later on in the book we found out that they had their own mayor and through him they contacted the ‘outside world’ and bargained for supplies that might have made their life easier. There was a hospital where they were treated when the symptoms of leprosy took affect. It was a small community in itself, fair enough it was secluded from the rest of the world (as people from all around Greece came to Spinalonga), they were still people and a community that went on with their daily lives. ‘The story of life on Spinalonga, the lepers’ island, is gripping and carries real emotional impact. Victoria Hislop…brings dignity and tenderness to her novel about lives blighted by leprosy’ (Telegraph).
The Island is a page-turning tale that reminds us that love and life continue in even the most extraordinary of circumstances. The book is full of wonderful descriptions, strong characters and an intimate portrait of island existence. A must-read on any person’s book list.
— K.J. Koukas