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Book review: <i>The Island</i> by Victoria Hislop

A story about the loves, lives and losses of four generations of Greeks; from the fishing village Plaka to London; and the devastating effect of the island off the coast of Plaka: Spinalonga.

The story

Alexis Fielding, a Londoner, is holidaying on Crete and is in a turmoil of indecisiveness. She has knows there are deep dark family secrets on the side of her mother, Sophia, who came from Crete but has always refused to mention anything about her past. She also doesn’t think she loves her long-term boyfriend, Ed, but she doesn’t really understand love and passion. So she is astounded when her mother agrees that she should visit Sophia’s home town, and some of her friends, to finally discover the secrets in her mother’s past.

Alexis leaves Ed sulking in Hania while she makes the long journey to the tiny fishing village of Plaka; her mother’s home town. She is surprised to find that just out to sea from Plaka sits Spinalonga—once the enforced colony for all of Crete’s lepers. Alexis seeks out Fontini, the woman to whom her mother has entrusted with telling their family history. Alexis not only discovers her deep connection to Plaka, but also her equally deep connection to Spinalonga. As Fontini’s tale unfolds, Alexis is drawn into the story of her family, and the passionate loves, hates, and lives of the villagers. And of course, their silent neighbours across the water.

The style

Victoria Hislop has tried to create a four generation family saga, as is the popular and done thing in some circles. She’s got the correct elements in play; secrets, lies, betrayal, deceit, scandal, love, leprosy (okay, maybe leprosy isn’t an essential element of the genre, but you get the drift). She has the exotic setting (for all those non-Creteans out there). She has a cast of characters who are flung across the spectrum from saintly to evil. She even has the obligatory war-disrupts-lives vibe. It’s all there. I have read some really amazing examples of the genre that have absolutely blown me away and The Island, unfortunately, is not going to be added to that list. It left me luke-warm, at best. And the worst part is that it had so much promise!

The Island is divided into four parts, and the whole thing is told from the third person limited perspective. Part one, in the present, is mainly told with Alexis. Part two and three make up the bulk of the story, and flick back to the past. This bit of the story is being told by Fontini, but obviously for ease of telling it is told third person narrative from various points of view, although mainly that of Maria, Sophia’s aunt. The fourth and final part is back to the present with Alexis and Sophia.

Technically, there is nothing at all wrong with the story. It is well told, meticulous even. No points are left out, there is sufficient suspense even though you have an inkling of the outcome (they’re the ones telling and being told the story, after all), and all the requisite issues are in play. There was something missing, though, when I consider how avidly I read Salman Rushdie’s Indian sagas, or how heart wrenching Isabele Allende is to read. I think that this may have been due partially to the writing style, which while technically fine was slightly bland. I had no burning desire to pick up the book and read it through, neglecting everything else. I was fairly ho-hum about the whole experience. But, most importantly, The Island seemed to lack passion and a real sense of cultural self. I didn’t feel transported to Crete; I felt like it could have been set in Australia. I just didn’t FEEL a solid cultural appeal, even with food and olives and drinks and the occasional greeting there to remind me that it was, in fact, set in Greece. And that is very important.

I realise this has been quite a negative review, which I didn’t mean it to be. As I said above, The Island has all the elements for its genre and is reasonably well written. I think that I have been spoiled by other literary talents when it comes to this genre, and so “good” just isn’t enough for me anymore. What I’m trying to say is, it didn’t suck.

Who is this book for?

Light holiday reading. It’s easy to read, inoffensive, and about two thirds of the way in I started getting mildly involved and interested to see how it would all turn out. So if you’re on holiday relaxing, or taking train journeys often, The Island would be a reasonable companion. I suspect that its main characters and general themes gear it more towards the ladies than the men, but the story doesn’t preclude male readers.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Do yourself a favour. Grab a Rushdie or an Allende. Seriously.

In short

Title: The Island
Author: Victoria Hislop
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing
ISBN: 0755309510
Year published: 2005
Pages: 473
Genre(s): Family saga, Historical fiction, Fiction
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I absolutely loved this book. I read it in two days---just couldn't put it down. I've never read Victoria Hislop before,but will definately be looking for "The Return" in my local library.

You have absolutely hit the nail on the head, that is exactly how I felt about The Island. It was good but strangely unaffecting. I have never read any Rushdie or Allende so will read one next.

I agree with the review... the novel lacked the ingredients to make it a remarkable read. The thing that struck me was how the author betrayed her British perspective in the telling of the story. There were also a number of inaccuracies in the cultural elements. For example, when Eleni goes to Spinalonga and Giorgis returns to Plaka to have dinner with his daughters, they are eating boiled lamb. For anyone that knows anything about that time in Greece, lamb was eaten perhaps once or twice a year. In a fishing village such as Plaka where fish is plentiful, where would they find lamb anyway? Lamb would be eaten on feast days or special occasions. It would be inappropriate to be celebrating with lamb on Eleni's banishment from the community. Non-Greeks' stereotype with Greeks eating lamb jumped out from the page as totally inappropriate. On an island like Crete, goats are more common anyway.
Victoria Hislop would have been wise to check her cultural and religious references with greater scrutiny. The reference to the feast day of Saints Konstanitnos and Eleni, where Anna kisses Antonis and meets Andreas, mention is made that Saint Konstantinos is the husband of Saint Eleni. Eleni was the mother of Konstantinos; she was not his wife.
There are also some other parts in the book that are so culturally inappropriate as to make it lack the substance that characterises Rushdie and Allende's work as truly outsanding pieces of literature. Rushdie and Allende write about their own culture. Hislop writes about another culture and betrays difficulties in grasping the subtle nuances of that culture. An example of this is when Maria and Kyritsis go to a taverna for a meal after Anna's funeral. This is so out of keeping with the local customs. Local custom dictates that the mourning period lasts for forty days. An outing to a restaurant would have been absolutely scandalous. The characters of Maria and Kyritsis are so misplaced in this scene as to make it absurd. And it does nothing to convey local customs.
As a Greek, I was so relieved that Greeks took on the making of the TV series. I have just finished watching the 26 episodes of the series and am delighted by the result - a truly moving saga told by those who understand the period and the people best. I highly recommend the series to anyone that can get a hold of it from MEGA TV in Greece. It is so much better than the book.

I disagree with the reviewer,

In contrast to the review above, I had a burning desire to pick up the book and read it through, neglecting everything else. I could not stop crying through certain parts of the book. It was full of passion and a real sense of cultural self. I felt transported to Crete and a solid cultural appeal. And I am actually Greek, born and raised there, and have visited Crete on numerous occasions. I was astonished by how well a British writer could transport me to Crete and make me live the story of Crete again through her eyes and words. It could have been written by someone that grew up in Crete. I loved this book.

I thought this book was beautiful. This is just my kind of genre. I read it in 3 days and stayed up into the early hours to finish it. I loved the concept and the fact that she involved so many characters over the generations and told the story from many different perspectives. She obviously did her research because she's not even Greek!

Even though this would be a good book to take on holiday I wouldn't brand it simply a 'beach book'. If I were reading this on holiday I'd be poor company as I'd be far too engrossed.