1957: Iris Bailey is bored to death of working in the typing pool and living with her parents in Hemel Hempstead. A gifted portraitist with a talent for sketching party guests, she dreams of becoming an artist. So she can’t believe her luck when socialite Nell Hardman invites her to Havana to draw at the wedding of her Hollywood director father.
Far from home, she quickly realizes the cocktails, tropical scents and azure skies mask a darker reality. As Cuba teeters on the edge of revolution and Iris’s heart melts for troubled photographer Joe, she discovers someone in the charismatic Hardman family is hiding a terrible secret. Can she uncover the ugly truth behind the glamour and the dazzle before all their lives are torn apart?
Island of Secrets is the third Rachel Rhys novel I’ve read and I have to say the plot felt very similar to Fatal Inheritance in that a young woman is plucked from her ordinary background into an exotic location. In this novel, Iris, a talented artist, is invited by socialite Nell Hardman to travel to Havana to do portraits of the guests at her father’s wedding. Excited at the prospect of experiencing something so different, Iris goes against her family’s wishes and jumps at the opportunity, however she is immediately overwhelmed upon her arrival in Havana as Nell’s family situation is a strange one.
Nell’s father, Hugh, a veteran director, is using his forthcoming wedding to renew interest in his flagging career, however he also wants to downplay the fact he is marrying his stepdaughter, Lana. Hugh has been married twice before, once to Nell’s mother, who is also attending the wedding, and, secondly, to Hollywood starlet, Jean Summers, who died in mysterious circumstances. Lana is Jean’s daughter and Iris is shocked when she learns about their relationship. The family dynamics are quite complicated and I had a hard time keeping everything straight in my head as it all got convoluted after awhile.
After arriving in Havana, Iris is assigned a room in the guest house with a writer, Eugene, and a photographer, Joe, who are also there to cover the wedding. Iris likes Eugene immediately but Joe is moody and Iris gets the impression he disapproves of her somehow despite their mutual attraction. As Iris gets accustomed to her new surroundings, she becomes increasingly reliant on her new house mates to help her navigate the complicated relationships of the family and the troubled political climate in Cuba.
The wedding takes place in 1957 as Fidel Castro is growing in power and there is a frisson of danger throughout as the wedding party socialises with prominent Cubans but the naive Iris is largely ignorant of the political situation. As a portrait artist, Iris has a real gift of seeing beyond the surface of her subjects and bringing their true nature to life on paper but this also gets her into trouble. We soon learn that Hugh’s wedding is being financed by his friend, Bruce Bonini, who is involved in some shady business with the local rebels and he is so startled by Iris’s talent, he is convinced she is a spy. Iris doesn’t help the situation by obsessing over the fate of Jean Summers and her amateur investigations lead to some hefty secrets being revealed.
I wouldn’t say the characters were particularly likeable but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things as we are more concerned with the secrets they are all hiding and Iris is the catalyst who brings it all into the open. As I said above, the family dynamics are complicated but I also had a hard time distinguishing between some of the characters, particularly the older women, who were too similar. Having said that, I read this book during lockdown when my concentration wasn’t at its best so it may have been my fault rather than the writing. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous two but I do enjoy the writing.