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I love reading, but in the last few months I've found it hard to find the time or the energy to read anything other than a newspaper or magazine. Then whilst reading the "Metro" on the way to work last month I spotted a review on this book by debut novelist Victoria Hislop. I registered that it was about Spinalonga, a now uninhabited island off the coast of northern Crete, where from 1903 to 1957 Greek lepers were banished with no hope of ever returning to their friends and families.
I spent a wonderful holiday in Crete 2 years ago, as detailed in my very first review here on dooyoo. I visited Spingalona whilst I was there and it left a lasting impression on me. The guide who took us around the island had this amazing talent for taking you back to a very difficult time and tragic place and told us several true stories. Most of the stories were sad ones, but they all gave me the sense of the courage and optimism that most of these people had.
The author of this novel has a very similar gift of inspiring empathy and a vivid 'mind's eye' in her readers. The story starts with a young Londoner, Alexis Fielding, preparing to go on holiday. She's at a questioning stage in her life, mid twenties, pondering her future with her long term boyfriend whilst about to embark on an already planned holiday with him and also intrigued by her mother Sofia's obvious unwillingness to discuss much about her childhood upbringing in her native Crete. Alexis plans to visit her mother's childhood village of Plaka whilst on this holiday in Crete. On mentioning this to her mother, she is surprised to find that
Sofia is quite happy about the idea and even gives her a letter to give to a Fontini, an old friend of Sofia's mother.
So she sets off on this already arranged holiday with her soon to be dumped boyfriend. In the second week, she decides to leave him to his own devices and drives off to Plaka, where she easily finds the little taverna run by Fotini and her family and is welcomed to stay. In her letter to Fontini, Alexis's mother has asked her to explain her family's history to her daughter as she feels unable to herself. Alexis takes up Fontini's offer to stay with them for a few days and so we are taken back in time while the story of Alexis's great grandmother, grandmother and mother is revealed.
I won't go into the story any further, but suffice to say that it was a gripping and often tear jerking read. Victoria Hislop writes with just the right amount of description and detail to transport you right into the heart of the story, but not so much that it becomes dull. In some reviews I've read before and since, the reviewer has often drawn comparisons between this book and the highly successful 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis de Bernieres. Both novels are set on Greek islands, both authors have the same talent for bringing characters, history and places to life, both had societal messages for the reader, but other than and that and the fact I thoroughly enjoyed reading both of them they are quite different, most of all in style. Hislop writes with descriptive but less literary and flowery style and thus this book, whilst not exactly cheerful reading at times is more of a beach read 'with a heart' as the cover says.
The book paints an intimate picture of what life was like for the lepers living on the island. The characters and situations are imaginary but from what I have read closely correlate in a few cases to real life. For example, life there may have been hard, but the residents never gave up and worked very hard to forge a normal existence. An island newspaper was regularly published, people fell in love and got married, partied, gossiped, had hobbies and petty quarrels, gardened, campaigned for more funding from the Greek government and bartered with each other. They did anything, but sit there lives out in total misery just waiting for to succumb to the disease and die. For many this optimism paid off as a cure was eventually found and many survivors left the island when it was closed in 1957.
What this book also does well is to convey human ignorance and prejudice about the disease. In those days it must have been far worse, but many 'healthy' people treated lepers as dirty, just as they did in biblical times when people suffering from one of the world's oldest diseases were ostracised from society and considered 'unclean'.
The disease can only be spread by direct contact with an open wound, but much like AIDS victims in the 1980s, suffers were avoided and feared as people often thought they could catch it from them just by being in the same room. Same prejudices, just a different disease. Also, like AIDS, at least in the beginning, the view was that the sufferer only had themselves to blame and little compassion was granted.
Even today in Hawaii a former compulsory leper colony stays open for suffers afraid to go back to the outside world for fear of prejudice. Worse still, despite the fact that an anti-biotic cure (if caught in the early stages) was found decades ago, The International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations estimates that at least 3 million people world wide (mainly Africa and Asia) still suffer from severe effects from the disease and less than 1 million people are being treated for it. This means millions of people are suffering needlessly from a disease that could well be made extinct if only more attention and funded was provided for it. If you take my advice and read this book, you may find, like me that you feel quite ignorant about leprosy so for more information, or to find out how you can help visit the LEPRA website: http://www.lepra.org.uk. There is also some information at the back of the novel, so with luck in writing this book Victoria Hislop will have brought attention to a well deserved cause, as well as boosting tourism for Crete and excursions to Spinalonga!
The book was first published in 2005 and is available in paperback at a cover price of £6.99. That's a bargain in itself but it's even cheaper at Tesco where I got it for £3.73 or on Amazon for £3.99. It is published by Headline Review and the paperback contains 480 pages. All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it. It's easy to read, despite the subject and has happy parts as well as sad, it's thought provoking and well written, you won't want to put it down.
If you have read it already or are inspired to after reading this, I'd love to know what you think.
I have just finished reading this book and you described it perfectly....This is one of the few books that I've read that have transported me into the story! Truly deserving an E in the way you reviewed it without giving away the story :-) x
parker-munn 06.10.2006 00:42
A really very good review; I've read the book and you've gone into detail about life on the island and the organisations dealing with leprosy which give a good idea of the story without telling too much about the plot to spoil it. I must say I agree with your observations and conclusions and it makes a good read too.
tblake7 31.05.2006 21:57
I went to Spinalonga last year and found it very interesting, may just have to go out and get this book....Nice review Tammy x