Revolving around the leper colony of Spinalonga and the Petrakis family across the water in the small village of Plaka, Victoria Hislop’s The Island spans generations, weaving the influence of the island and village life into the fate of the family. Alexis is travelling through contemporary-day Greece and Crete in a post-graduation gap holiday with a dull boyfriend and a disjointed relationship with her mother. From a spur-of-the-moment request, Alexis leaves her boyfriend behind and goes to her mother’s hometown in Crete, Plaka, and ends up finding both her heritage and herself.
If it sounds trite, it is, but with a family history involving murder, leprosy, adultery, and medical marvels, it was enough to keep me reading. What makes this book distinct is the real main character: the eponymous island. It was a part of history I had no idea about: the Greek government sent diagnosed lepers to the colony of Spinalonga, creating a whole community of people, proud, ostracized, ill; fighting their own prejudices as well as others’. This is a unique society with particular boundaries, making it a fascinating concept for exploration, but unfortunately we are not allowed to spend enough time on this island and it’s intriguing role in history to justify an entire novel.
And here is my main difficulty with The Island: every character – both human and Spinalonga itself – feels like just a sketch. There is little to no character development, most people we spend time with feel like negligent tropes, who are all surface and no content. The writing style is like this too: we gloss over whole decades of a character’s life in a few paragraphs, and all too often we are told and not shown essential elements of feeling or action. Some of the writing is poetic – the imagery you get of a seaside village, and Cretan life, is beautiful – but in toto this just adds to the feeling of surface sparkle with nothing underneath. The character tropes are infuriatingly lazy at times, and when the whore in the Petrakis sister Madonna/whore setup gets her just desserts I almost left the book in a rage – it seemed insulting to put such simple characters in such a temptingly rich context for story telling.
As a fan of the occasional historic novel, I am well used to compromising on some elements of story-telling (Ken Follet’s female characters; Edward Rutherford’s semi-lecturing on a new idea right before a character just-so-happens to undertake it), but here it was just too much. While Hislop may have undertaken significant research on Spinalonga itself and role it played in modern history, little thought seems to have been invested in the characters who are supposed to tell the story about this island. And the real tragedy of this book is that we don’t even get much of Spinalonga either. I wanted more: more time spent there, a better understanding of its society, how leprosy and then the cure affected its residents and how the community ran, but Hislop blurs this all together.
Other historical novels by Victoria Hislop were recommended to me at the same time as The Island, and in my initial excitement I almost downloaded them all in one go. While I am glad I have read The Island, I am also glad that I did not buy any other Hislop books. I learnt a lot about Spinalonga, leprosy, and small-town Crete life in the mid-20th Century, but I do wonder if it was worth putting up with vacuous narration, stereotypical character archetypes, and yet another book with poorly developed female characters.