The most magical thing about reading is that with a good book you can be transported to another time and place and sometimes this can make you want to travel, to see more of the world and discover more about the history of different countries and cultures. This is how The Island has made me feel. I visited Crete with a friend and her family when I was about 14, but when you are a young teenager you don’t have the freedom to travel as you wish and truly appreciate the beauty of the place you are experiencing. Now I want to go back. In fact I don’t just want to go back I want to travel to other exotic places too!
Alexis is in her mid twenties, unsure of her relationship with her boyfriend and longing to find out more about her mother’s mysterious past. Sofia has never spoken about her upbringing in a small village in Crete, but despite her reluctance to discuss her past she agrees to give Alexis a letter to take to an old friend and promises that this will help her discover more about her Cretan family. On her arrival in Plaka, Alexis is surprised to discover that just across a small stretch of sea is the island of Spinalonga- Greece’s former leper colony. She is even more surprised when she meets Fotini and is told that her great-grandmother Eleni is buried on the island. And so begins a family history plagued with tragedy, passion and fate.
The majority of the novel is set in the past, starting in the 1930s and taking the reader through the German Occupation of Crete during the Second World War to the lepers leaving Spinalonga in the 1950s and to the reasons why Sofia left Crete an never truly returned. Despite a slow start to the novel, mainly due to the fact it was set in the modern day and the scene needed to be set, as soon as I got to the part in the 1930s I was swept along with the story and the romance of life in the small village of Plaka. The Petrakis family are devastated by so many tragedies from the moment Eleni is diagnosed with leprosy. At the time lepers were cast out of society and sent to live in isolation so as not to infect others. It was heartbreaking reading about Eleni’s split from her family and her two young daughters, Anna and Maria. Unfortunately this was not the last tragedy to hit the family and over the decades they are victims to disease, ill fated love, passionate love affairs and true selfishness on the part of one sister and selflessness on the part of the other.
Leprosy is not a disease I know a great deal about; I have vague childhood memories of people telling me that lepers lost their limbs, but that is the extent of my knowledge. Conditions on Spinalonga when Eleni first arrived were appalling, with no electricity and little clean water provisions. However the island is probably one of the few places that truly benefited from the war and it soon began to thrive as a successful community. It was interesting to read how the island developed over the years and how the battle against leprosy began and the lepers were finally able to leave their isolation. I can imagine it is a haunting place to visit even now.
I really did enjoy this book and there were many occasions when reading it when I was shocked and was shouting ‘no’ at the pages in disbelief. I love the feeling of being surprised by a storyline, even if it is a sad way, and The Island delivered this 100%. As I have said, I preferred the parts of the novel set in the past as there was more of a romantic and mysterious element to the storyline provided from the different time and culture. Luckily for me the majority of the novel was set in the past, so this was the perfect romantic read. Although don’t get me wrong, there is much more to this novel than just some light hearted, fluffy romantic story. The Observer is quoted on the front of my copy sating that this is ‘a beach book with a heart’ and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are looking for a compelling read for your summer holidays I would definitely recommend The Island.
I handed this book out at school as part of World Book Night and all of my copies were quickly snapped up. Some of us who have been reading it have decided to create a mini book group based solely on this novel and are planning to meet up and discuss it in the first few weeks of the new term. The comments I have heard so far have been great so I am looking forward to hearing more about their opinions on The Island.