I chose The Island because I visited the now abandoned leper colony on the island of Spinalonga last year on my holiday to Crete. What I didn’t expect was the story that is set on that island to grab me quite so much.
Alexis Fielding is on the brink of making the biggest decision of her life and almost as a distraction fixates on the mystery of her mother’s life, her childhood that she refused to talk about. All through her childhood Sofia had received letters with Greek stamps on intermittently though Alexis’s childhood but when she is visiting Greece with her long-standing boyfriend she tells her mother that she would visit the place where Sofia had grown up, Plaka and Sofia relented and gave her a letter to give to her old friend.
The story that follows spans decades from before the Second World War and a good part of it is set on the leper colony on Spinalonga where sufferers of leprosy were sent, away from their friends and family to stop the spread of the disease. What I’d never realised before visiting Spinalonga and reading The Island, was that sufferers could and often did live for years, the trajectory of the disease not being predictable until the end which to be honest sounds pretty horrific.
This is a saga of a story though, and has all the required elements of love, betrayal, secrets and at its heart family. The story swings backwards and forwards from the little village of Plaka where life is simple to the bigger towns where research was going on to find a cure for the dreadful disease, a search which was suspended when the war became the fight that the whole of Greece was focussed on.
The story is told through Fontini’s retelling of the events spanning years to Alexis and the story centres around Maria Petrakis, a young teacher who may have caught Leprosy from one of her pupils. Maria was sent to Spinalonga along with the ten year old boy, leaving her father and her younger sister behind. But Spinalonga wasn’t the bleak place you might suppose. Continued pressure on the great and the good of Crete meant that those living there were able to make the place into a small community complete with market day and supported by twice weekly deliveries of goods from Plakka. With letters and regular visits from a doctor who was willing to take the risk of contracting leprosy the inhabitants get news from the world outside, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to put yourselves into the shoes of those who lived in the little houses on the island of their exile.
Victoria Hislop weaves a fantastic tale around a family based on the history of an island which must have held so many equally involved stories and so vivid was Maria’s story that I had to remind myself continually that this was a work of fiction but despite that, now many weeks after reading The Island Maria’s story lingers in my mind. For those of you who haven’t yet read this book I’m pleased to report that despite the subject matter the book comes to the perfect ending.
The Island was my ninth read of my 20 Books of Summer Challenge 2017