By Ekta R. Garg
July 26, 2017
Genre: Historical fiction
Rated: Borrow it
A young woman travels to the island of Crete off the mainland of Greece in search of her ancestral heritage and the answers her mother refuses to give her. She hopes that what she finds there will help her make decisions about her own life challenges. Instead she discovers secrets about her family that come from a world and era unlike her own. British author Victoria Hilsop uses the backdrop of the real-life defunct leper colony in Greece as the location of a sweeping family saga in her award-winning novel, The Island.
The restlessness Alexis Fielding experiences comes as much from her boyfriend’s impatience as it does her own questioning of their relationship. On the surface, Ed seems perfect for her. They epitomize the “opposites attract” philosophy. Despite their trip to Greece for a long-deserved holiday, however, Alexis can’t help but wonder if this is the beginning of the end of their life as a couple.
Greece offers plenty of other distractions too. Alexis knows her mother grew up in Crete off the coast of the mainland, but that piece of information and an old photograph on her mother’s bedside table provide the only real chinks in her mother’s implacable façade. Sofia Fielding doesn’t yield to emotion, and she certainly doesn’t bend to requests for stories from her past. Even then, Alexis can’t help pressuring her mother for answers before she and Ed go away. In a rare moment of sentimentality, Sofia tells Alexis about an old friend in Crete and gives Alexis a letter to deliver.
Alexis knows Ed won’t want to visit the small fishing town of Plaka, some 150 miles away from their lodging in Iraklion, so she makes the trek alone. She finds her mother’s old friend, delivers the letter, and sits down to hear a story almost 50 years old. The story spans generations, includes love and jealousy, and ultimately centers on the island of Spinalonga.
For Alexis the name evokes a sense of history, but for many in Plaka it meant a death sentence. Spinalonga served as the Greek government’s main leper colony for more than 50 years in a political bid to rid the island and the surrounding area of entrenched Turkish settlers. As Alexis visits the island and hears about her own family’s connection to it, she begins to understand her mother’s reticence and the need for Sofia to keep her story to herself.
Author Victoria Hilsop wrote The Island after visiting Spinalonga and finding it draw her into its past. The real-life citizens of Spinalonga found themselves cast away from society, yet they determined to stay resilient. They turned Spinalonga into a thriving community with shops and church services, movies on the big screen, and a hospital dedicated to the well-being of the island’s residents. Hilsop’s passion for and dedication to the island’s existence shine in the research she obviously did for the book. As Alexis gets drawn into the past, so do the readers.
The book reads like a sweeping saga with the essence of the classic Russian novels. Readers might find it hard to follow all the storylines, and the head hopping (switching character points-of-view) takes a little getting used to. Also, some of the choices made by some of the characters feel a little pat. Hilsop fulfills some tropes, but for the most part she’ll keep readers guessing.
Alexis’s own story gets relegated to the background, so readers shouldn’t expect to hear much from her during the entire book. Her visit to Plaka really is meant just to set up the entire premise. In fact, Hilsop could have started the story in the early 1950s and still come away with just as successful a novel.
The people of Plaka and Greece overall appreciated Hilsop’s careful detailing. The Greek television industry turned the novel into a 26-part mini-series that went on to become, by most accounts, the most successful mini-series of all time on Greek TV. The book itself has sold thousands of copies, hitting the bestseller lists in many countries, and many shops in Plaka sell autographed copies of the novel in its paperback version.
While the mechanics in the writing may have a few issues, overall the story is enjoyable. I recommend readers Borrow The Island by Victoria Hilsop.