THE ISLAND - Victoria Hislop
Take The Island by Victoria Hislop, for example. I became intrigued by this book when I realised that it was listed on the sub-genre of reference books/genealogy on amazon. This is where I am hoping to place my new genealogy book this summer, and I couldn’t help wondering why a fiction novel was loitering in the reference section?
As this book has also been an amazon chart topper and a Richard & Judy Summer Read, I could only assume that this was a piece of savvy marketing by her publishers. I needed to read it to find out.
My first reaction to The Island was disappointment. Hislop breaks every rule of fiction writing in the first chapter. The novel begins with a massive info-dump relating to the background lives of Alexis and her boyfriend (a character we barely meet and are not encouraged to like) and Hislop head-hops from the point of view of one character, to another, which such alarming frequency that I became dizzy and confused about whose story we were actually reading.
However, I was immediately struck with the excellent quality of her imagery:
Spinalonga. She played with the word, rolling it around her tongue like an olive stone….
…He was as leather-faced as any Cretan fisherman who had spent decades on storm-tossed seas….if wrinkles were like the rings of an oak tree and could be used to measure age, a rough calculation would leave him little short of eighty.
Once The Island was past the banal introduction and the bland modern characters, Hislop introduced us to the tragic lives of the leper, Eleni, and her devastated husband and daughters. Now, I was enthralled.
At this point, I realised that the The Island had succeeded in doing what I need good literature to do - which is to take me somewhere in history, society or geography where I have not been before. Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know that leprosy still rampaged around Europe in the mid- twentieth century, just before the start of mass tourism and the package holiday.
I found this novel fascinating and deeply moving. I was touched by the bravery of Eleni and Maria and their cheerful acceptance of their lot; I was even able to feel pity for the selfish Anna. Thanks to the author's skill with description I could visualise the leper colony, Spinalonga, and I remained hooked as Hislop took us on a journey, beneath the blazing, Cretan sun, along the quayside and through Dante’s tunnel into the world of the deformed and the ‘unclean.’ For three decades, Hislop led us through its twisted, crumbling, Turkish and Venetian streets. A world only ever imagined in the nightmares of the mainlanders, came alive with compassion, bravery, sacrifice and humanity at the hands of this very clever writer.
A great summer read.