The Petrakis family lives in the small Greek seaside village of Plaka. Just off the coast is the tiny island of Spinalonga, where the nation's leper colony once was located--a place that has haunted four generations of Petrakis women. There's Eleni, ripped from her husband and two young daughters and sent to Spinalonga in 1939, and her daughters Maria, finding joy in the everyday as she dutifully cares for her father, and Anna, a wild child hungry for passion and a life anywhere but Plaka. And finally there's Alexis, Eleni's great-granddaughter, visiting modern-day Greece to unlock her family's past.
A richly enchanting novel of lives and loves unfolding against the backdrop of the Mediterranean during World War II, The Island is an enthralling story of dreams and desires, of secrets desperately hidden, and of leprosy's touch on an unforgettable family.
Travel writer Hislop's unwieldy debut novel opens with 25-year-old Alexis leaving Britain for Crete, her mother Sofia's homeland, hoping to ferret out the secrets of Sofia's past and thereby get a handle on her own turbulent life. Sofia's friend Fortini tells Alexis of her grandmother Anna, and great-aunt Maria. Their mother (Alexis's great-grandmother) contracted leprosy in 1939 and went off to a leper colony on the nearby island of Spinalonga, leaving them with their father. Anna snags a wealthy husband, Andreas, but smolders for his renegade cousin, Manoli. When philanderer Manoli chooses Maria, Anna is furious. Conveniently, Maria also contracts leprosy and is exiled, allowing Anna to conduct an affair with Manoli. Meanwhile, Maria feels an attraction to her doctor, who may have similar feelings. Though the plot is satisfyingly twisty, the characters play one note apiece (Anna is prone to dramatic outrages, Maria is humble and kind, and their love interests are jealous and aggressive). Hislop's portrayal of leprosy--those afflicted and the evolving treatment--during the 1940s and 1950s is convincing, but readers may find the narrative's preoccupation with chronicling the minutiae of daily life tedious. (July)
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William Morrow Paperbacks
July 24, 2007
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Excerpt from The Island by Victoria Hislop
Unfurled from its mooring, the rope flew through the air and sprayed the woman's bare arms with droplets of seawater. They soon dried, and as the sun beat down on her from a cloudless sky she noticed that her skin sparkled with intricate patterns of salty crystals, like a tattoo in diamonds. Alexis was the only passenger in the small, battered boat, and as it chugged away from the quay in the direction of the lonely, unpeopled island ahead of them she shuddered, as she thought of all the men and women who had travelled there before her.
Spinalonga. She played with the word, rolling it around her tongue like an olive stone. The island lay directly ahead, and as the boat approached the great Venetian fortification which fronted the sea, she felt both the pull of its past and an overpowering sense of what it still meant in the present. This, she speculated, might be a place where history was still warm, not stone cold, where the inhabitants were real not mythical. How different that would make it from the ancient palaces and sites she had spent the past few weeks, months--even years--visiting.
Alexis could have spent another day clambering over the ruins of Knossos, conjuring up in her mind from those chunky fragments how life had been lived there over four thousand years before. Of late, however, she had begun to feel that this was a past so remote as to be almost beyond the reach of her imagination, and certainly beyond her caring. Though she had a degree in archaeology and a job in a museum, she felt her interest in the subject waning by the day. Her father was an academic with a passion for his subject, and in a childlike way she had simply grown up to believe she would follow in his dusty footsteps. To someone like Marcus Fielding there was no ancient civilisation too far in the past to arouse his interest, but for Alexis, now twenty-five, the bullock she had passed on the road earlier that day had considerably more reality and relevance to her life than the Minotaur at the centre of the legendary Cretan labyrinth ever could.
The direction her career was taking was not, currently, the burning issue in her life. More pressing was her dilemma over Ed. All the while they soaked up the steady warmth of the late summer rays on their Greek island holiday, a line was slowly being drawn under the era of a once promising love affair. Theirs was a relationship that had blossomed in the rarefied microcosm of a university, but in the outside world it had withered and, three years on, was like a sickly cutting that had failed to survive being transplanted from greenhouse to border.
Ed was handsome. This was a matter of fact rather than opinion. But it was his good looks that sometimes annoyed her as much as anything and she was certain that they added to his air of arrogance and his sometimes enviable self-belief. They had gone together, in an 'opposites attract' sort of way, Alexis with her pale skin and dark hair and eyes and Ed with his blond, blue-eyed, almost Aryan looks. Sometimes, however, she felt her own wilder nature being bleached out by Ed's need for discipline and order and she knew this was not what she wanted; even the small measure of spontaneity she craved seemed anathema to him.
Many of his other good qualities, most of them regarded as assets by the world at large, had begun to madden her. An unshakeable confidence for a start. It was the inevitable result of his rock-solid certainty about what lay ahead and had always lain ahead from the moment of his birth. Ed was promised a lifetime job in a law firm and the years would unfold for him in a preordained pattern of career progression and homes in predictable locations. Alexis's only certainty was their growing incompatibility.