You must read this book. For the last two years I've been struggling to connect with novels. Perhaps I didn't love them as much as I used to I thought. Perhaps the lure of smartphones and internet news, TV boxsets and movies so easy to hand had killed my love of the novel. It was not so. I was just reading novels that were not wonderful. The Island is a wonderful book.
The story begins with our gateway character, Alexis, who is in a unfulfilling relationship with a handsome yet shallow man and resentful towards her mother for her distance and secrecy. Escaping her boring romantic beach holiday in Greece she takes the opportunity to visit Plaka in Crete, the town in which her mother was born. There she finds a deserted leper island and an old friend of her great aunt's who can unravel the mysteries of her family. The story follows Alexis's family over three generations, starting with the tragic story of her grandparents.
Victoria Hislop paints vivid images of the Cretan community: their traditions, the men in the bars, the dances, the feasts but also the cruelties, prejudices, selfishness and hardships the people endure.
But it is when the story turns to Spinalonga that the book becomes fascinating. Spinalonga is a dreaded place. Seem from the outside it appears a place of death, a hellish prison where people rot away from their loved ones. But the truth is far more complicated, just like the disease itself. Leprosy is a disease that everyone has heard of. Growing up I believed it was a disease that killed your body off piece by piece so that fingers, toes, noses fell off in turn. You could catch it by touching someone which was why lepers had to live in colonies. Or so I thought. Spinalonga is indeed a place that fears and beliefs such as these created. But it is not the truth. Victoria Hislop reminds us that leprosy can affect anyone and it is actually not easily spread. When much beloved characters become lepers they do not change. They are still the people they always were. So Spinalonga's inhabitants are not beggars, they are lawyers, teachers, people able to create a new society apart from the mainland. Spinalonga is a refuge from prejudice, from war, from poverty and hunger. In being rejected from society, the lepers form a better civilisation.
Do not write people off because they have a disease. Do not let prejudice keep you from appreciating who people are. That is the hopeful, inclusive message of this beautiful book. 10/10 and one of my favourite books.