So, I’m a little late posting this one – and given the weather’s turn it’s hard to believe that less than a month ago I was seeing out the last of the summer in Crete. But, I was, and so this book packed with Cretan history seemed like the perfect pick for my trip. Victoria Hislop’s much-hyped debut, hailed as a ‘beach book with a brain’, offers an insight into some little-known (or at least to me) Greek history. With a historical drama and touching family saga played out against the natural beauty of the island of Crete, it seemed ideal for my recent holiday. But it’s not without it’s flaws.
I knew little about the island of Spinalonga before this book, but after reading it’s an island I won’t forget in a hurry. This was Greece’s leper colony from the early 1900s through to the 1950s; one of the last European leper colonies in existence. The disease of leprosy was misunderstood, and victims were often feared and demonised. Hislop frames her story around a village family who are inflicted by the disease, and the majority of the tale is set between Spinalonga and Plaka, a small town opposite the the island, during this period.
I knew very little about Cretan history, Spinalonga or leprosy before reading this book, and I have to admit that I found this element of the book enlightening. The sense of fear of the disease is palpable, and the brutal transition those who were diagnosed had to go through – leaving their entire lives behind them to start anew on the island – was difficult to process.
But there were issues. Victoria Hislop’s writing style is unusual, almost literal in many ways, and it took me a while to get used to. Her characters were relateable but quite one-dimensional – there seemed little depth or character development throughout. The father, mother and youngest daughter Maria all felt a little too perfect, and the only character who really intrigued me was the second daughter, Anna, who wasn’t really explored enough.
There’s also a dual timeline narrative here, but the present day story of Alexis really gets so little time it’s barely worth mentioning, and really just feels like a poorly used plot device to bring the generations of the family together from past through to present.
This book was a strange one which left me with mixed feelings; it’s a fascinating, touching plot, yet the writing and character development was so poor I wasn’t able to appreciate it properly. It’s a story which deserves to be told, but I just wish the author had told it in a slightly different style.