I’ve had Victoria Hislop’s The Island on my shelf for a long time. It was given to me and I, thinking it was a romance, hadn’t found the enthusiasm to read it. But although the story starts with the young Alexis deliberating over whether to end her relationship with bossy boyfriend Ed during a holiday to her mother’s native Crete, the tale soon turns to the Cretan island of Spinalonga, a former leper colony, to which Alexis’s secretive mother has uneasy and long unspoken ties.
Alexis begins to delve into the story of her mother’s history and we trace her family back to her great grandmother – it’s quite a story, and the factual side of it, detailing the leper island and Cretan history, is fascinating. Victoria Hislop has obviously fallen in love with her subject and hers is a very tenderly drawn portrait of the lives of the fictional Petrakis family – its women, who range from brave and deeply loyal to haughty and adulterous, and also its men, especially the stoical boatman Georgiou who has to bear so many cruel twists of fate.
It’s a well-crafted story and even though it’s not the sort of book I’d normally buy I did enjoy it. My only criticism would be that it verges on depressing in parts – there’s a lot of suffering and though there is hope and joy, it’s sparse. The cover describes it as “a beach read with heart” but I don’t think it’s one I’d really want to read under a palm tree. Hislop does much to provide a fresh take on leprosy – her characters are far from the rotten pariahs of biblical tales – but they do suffer, often as much from ignorance and hysteria as from their physical condition, granted, but it still doesn’t make for a light and fluffy read. Then again, perhaps Hislop (who, in the interests of trivia, I should mention is the wife of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop) never intended it to be that sort of book. Perhaps she intended a more all-encompassing portrait of a family whose history is rich and full of secrets. Certainly The Island is perfect if you like the idea of a good emotional read that opens a window into an often misrepresented disease and its heartbreaking history.