I’ll start by saying that this novel is set in Greece—and for that reason alone—I was interested; that, and it was a huge bestseller in Europe, holding “the number 1 slot in the paperback charts for eight consecutive weeks, selling over a million copies in the UK . . . [and now] published in over twenty languages.” For someone who researches book sales for fun, these numbers were quite impressive, and the fact that it is about Greece made it an easy sell for me. And the novel certainly did not disappoint.
The Island is a story about the infamous leper colony on Spinalonga, a tiny island off the shores of Crete. It’s a novel that is historical, romantic, and beautifully written. It was hard, at times, to separate the details of this story to places I have been or Greek people I know. Victoria Hislop, an English writer, who owns a summer house on the island of Crete, said in an interview when asked if she visits Greece often: “Yes…very often. Sometimes it feels as though the more appropriate question would be ‘Do you visit the UK often?’ I am in Greece so much.” And this is apparent in her writing. She knows the culture, the intimate gestures and idiosyncrasies of Greek people well.
It’s a novel that begins in contemporary Greece with a first-generation English girl who travels to Crete to find out about her Greek ancestors. When the young lady asks questions about her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, it reminded me a lot about my own process when writing Red Greek Tomatoes.
When I decided to write a Greek-American novel and ask my yiayia questions about her life in the 1930s on the then-Greek island of Imbros, I realized how many stories die with our family members if we don’t take the energy to ask or make the time to listen. When Alexis finally asks and listens, she uncovers a tragic tale of four generations of Petrakis women, and how leprosy marked their family.
I was emotionally carried away when, in the beginning of the novel, Eleni, Alexis’ great-grandmother is taken away from the village of Plaka, torn away from her daughters, to go live on Spinalonga—a segregated life for lepers. Eleni’s relationship with her husband is one of the many mini stories of love and lust; at times, I did want more of a particular relationship, but the focus of the novel seems to be less on the characters and more on the concept of survival in its various manifestations.
My only disappointment was the end. It seems to wrap up too quickly. As I struggle to cut fifty more pages from my novel, I can just hear Hislop’s agent saying: “We got the lucrative book deal, but you need to rewrite the last fifty pages and make them only five.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems too much is made into neat parcels too quickly. Apart from this minor critique, I loved The Island. I enjoyed learning about something I never knew existed (the leper colony); I relished the descriptions of Greece (a country that I absolutely adore); and I appreciated Hislop’s good writing (fresh, accurate descriptions and thoughtful plot). I would surely recommend this novel. It’s a smart book, not a page-turner necessarily, but one of the best books I have read in the last few years.