The lives of the Petrakis family change forever the day Eleni is diagnosed with leprosy and sent to the island of Spinalonga, just off the coast of Crete. Since Eleni has a particular virulent strain of the disease, her prognosis isn’t good and her family struggle to survive without her. For Giorgis, the only contact he can maintain with his adored wife is through his daily trips to the island to drop off supplies but with Eleni visibly deteriorating before his eyes, the journey brings him great heartache. For Eleni’s young daughters, Anna and Maria, the loss of their mother leaves them struggling to grow into womanhood while dealing with the German occupation of Crete.
Victoria Hislop is one of those writers I’ve always been aware of but never gotten round to reading until now and I was particularly looking forward to reading The Island because of the Cretan setting. I love reading books set in exotic locations and when you look at pictures of Spinalonga, it looks especially beautiful in the middle of the clear azure sea. However, what I didn’t know was that Spinalonga was used as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957, and it is this fascinating aspect of its history which is being explored in The Island. When Eleni first arrives, the island is suffering from a lack of funding and the mayor’s pleas to the government are being ignored. With the island on the point of rebellion, it isn’t until a fresh wave of Athenian sufferers arrive that things begin to change for the better as they bring new skills and powerful connections. As the government finally responds, the Athenians rejuvenate the island’s economy until it becomes more prosperous than anyone could’ve imagined.
However, despite the improved conditions, a cure for leprosy is still out of reach and time runs out for Eleni who eventually succumbs to the disease. Unfortunately, this was the point where I started to get bored because the focus moves away from Spinalonga to Eleni’s family and the subsequent chapters deal with the daughters who are now young women on the verge of marriage. The eldest girl, Anna, is far more rebellious than her sister but she is never a likeable character because Hislop makes no effort to explain why Anna is so dissatisfied. When Anna receives a proposal of marriage from the son of a wealthy family, great pains are taken to ensure the reasons behind Eleni’s death are kept secret but it is a bit hard to believe Andreas’s family would’ve been so oblivious as Eleni was a prominent member of society and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business.
In contrast, the younger sister, Maria, is sweet and innocent so it seems particularly unfair that her fate seems tied to her mother’s when she is also diagnosed with leprosy just before she is due to marry and ends up on Spinalonga. As expected, the focus turns back to the island once Maria arrives there which makes the previous chapters seem even more like unnecessary padding. Fortunately, medical science is on Maria’s side and new treatments lead to an eventual cure but not much attention is given to the experiments being carried out as we hear about them virtually secondhand despite Maria’s involvement. Maria is kept up-to-date about her sister’s life through visits from her father and best friend, Fotini, but Anna’s behaviour remains despicable as she embarks on an affair with the man Maria should’ve married.
Once the cure for leprosy has ben found, Spinalonga fades into the background once more but Maria’s life is turned upside down by her sister’s antics and more family secrets are created which will have disastrous consequences on the next generations. Again, the extent of the secrecy is hard to swallow due to the prominence of the families involved and their subsequent actions.
While Hislop has absolutely nailed the setting and the culture at the heart of this novel, I just wish she had taken the same care with her characters because I never felt like I really knew any of them. Much of the story is also told rather than shown and seems like an endless list of events rather than drama. We are almost two years into the Second World War before it is even mentioned, yet Spinalonga seems to be suffering no ill-effects from rationing and none of the islanders seem concerned for their loved ones. The Spinalonga chapters are the best and the community created by the islanders is fascinating enough to carry the novel on its own so it’s a great pity it’s so overwhelmed by the tedious melodrama surrounding Anna.
Maria’s own story is so wrapped up in the fate of her sister that it too seems to become insignificant as the last few chapters rush through the various generations until Anna’s great-granddaughter, Alexis, arrives in Crete to hear the true story of her family. Since Anna and Maria are long gone, it is left to Fotini to tell Alexis the truth about her origins but it all seems a little pointless and lacking in emotion since we never really got to know these characters in the first place.