On the brink of a life-changing decision, Alexis Fielding longs to find out about her mother’s past. But Sofia had never spoken of it. All she admits to is growing up in a small Cretan village before moving to London. When Alexis decides to visit Crete, however, Sofia gives her daughter a letter to take to an old friend, and promises that through her she will learn more.
Arriving in Plaka, Alexis is astonished to see that it lies a stone’s throw from the tiny, deserted island of Spinalonga – Greece’s former leper colony. Then she finds Fontini, and at last hears the story that Sofia has buried all her life: the tale of her great-grandmother Eleni and her daughters, and a family rent by tragedy, war and passion. She discovers how intimately she is connected with the island, and how secrecy holds them all in its powerful grip…
Where to start with this book? My Mum recommended this book to me quite a few months back and I hate to admit it, but I was hesitant to read it. Mum and I have pretty different taste in books. I love to read psychological/legal thrillers with some fluffy, easy-to-read books thrown into the mix. I have never been a fan of historical fiction. In fact, I’ve always hated history. Then I met Peter.
When Peter and I first started dating, I learned very quickly that he was a history junkie. His favourite subjects are WWII and tanks. I bought him this tank poster for our wedding and he still stands in front of it for a few minutes almost daily. On Mother’s Day, I bought him these two pictures and I have rarely seen him look so excited.
For those of you who don’t know Peter, he’s incredibly reserved and doesn’t show his emotions freely, so it was cute to see his little smirk when he received both the tank poster and the fighter and bomber pictures. I owe my love for WWII history to Peter. We watched Saving Private Ryan together and I loved it, but it still didn’t make me stop and think about the fact that the war actually happened. Next, we watched Band of Brothers. That was the game changer. Never had WWII seemed so real to me. I remember exactly how I felt while watching episode two, the episode that shows the paratroopers on D-Day. I was hooked and I felt my whole world view change. How can you be the same person when you finally understand how different the world was during that time? The loss, the tragedy; it makes you see that we live in such a selfish and entitled world today. Peter explains history to me in a way that interests me and helps me understand. He could talk about tanks, in particular, for hours on end, I’m sure of it. I often tease him about this because he’ll tell me the same thing over and over and over, but truthfully I love it because I enjoy seeing the excitement in his eyes.
Fully appreciating history meant that I also learned to appreciate historical fiction. After reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, I decided to give The Island a go. I was not disappointed. It’s such an eye opening book and it teaches lessons that are applicable even today. I don’t want to spoil the book for you so I won’t talk about anything that I think gives away too much of the plot, but there are four main themes that I found within the book.
1. Making the most of your situation
When Eleni finds out that she has leprosy, she is banished to the island of Spinalonga. Upon Eleni’s arrival in Spinalonga, living conditions are less than ideal. There is much bitterness within the people and they feel like they have nothing to live for. They are essentially sent to Spinalonga to die. Eleni doesn’t lose hope, however, and makes the most of her situation, making sure she has an attractive home, planting herbs in her front yard, and even teaching at the local school. When a group of men and women arrive on the island from Athens, life on Spinalonga changes drastically. Soon they have a bakery, a cinema, a newspaper. They have a taste of normal life. A reason to live. How often are we in situations that seem hopeless and we fail to make the most of our situation? We don’t have to like what we’re going through, but we should try to make the most of it.
It’s unbelievable how many people thought that leprosy was a highly contagious disease. Some people probably still think that. With Spinalonga just a stone’s throw away from Plaka, many of the villagers believed that they were at risk of contracting the disease. We know now that leprosy is quite difficult to catch unless you’re in constant, close contact with a leper. Eleni’s husband, Giorgis, was fortunate enough not to catch the disease from his wife. That’s proof alone that it’s not easily spread. The difficult thing about leprosy is that it can live in your body for years without showing any symptoms. I suppose that’s why it became such an issue and is still such an issue today in places like India. Peter lived in India when he was six and he encountered lepers often. Being such a young boy at the time, he was quite traumatized by the sight of disfigured faces and missing limbs. He obviously has a much better understanding of leprosy now and would look at those people with a completely different perspective. Instead of fear, there would be compassion. It was the same for those villagers in Plaka. Had they known the full facts about leprosy, they would have felt compassion rather than fear. Again, I feel like this is a good reminder for us. Ignorance does no one any good. Especially for us to voice opinions on things that we know nothing about. I’m sure that many of the people living in Plaka during the time that Spinalonga was still occupied felt remorse for how they treated their neighbours and friends who were lepers.
3. Unconditional love
Eleni’s husband, Giorgis, was the perfect example of someone who loved unconditionally. He was the only person in Plaka who would “risk his life” by making deliveries to Spinalonga to ensure that they had all the supplies they needed. When his wife was diagnosed and sent to Spinalonga, he was sure to visit her every week. He was the most constant person in the novel and he showed such great character. He was truly an admirable person.
4. Looking at things from a different perspective
Sofia refused to tell Alexis about her past because she was deeply ashamed. Not all of her shame was to do with her family’s history with leprosy, she had many things to be ashamed of, but none that I can mention without ruining half of the book. When Alexis heard the full story, she showed her Mum a new perspective. She helped her Mum understand that, although there are portions of her past that are tragic, she had so much to be proud of. Sometimes all we need is a new perspective.
Victoria Hislop does a fabulous job of depicting life on Spinalonga! It shows the sorrow that those people would’ve felt and yet it also shows how they had joy and hope. They became a community who loved each other and worked hard together to create some sense of normalcy. It is truly a touching story and I highly recommend reading it.