Leper colony subject of new novel

Spinalonga is an island tourists visit in droves, attracted by its once-impregnable Venetian fortress. But 100 years ago, boats took people there just one way, depositing them there for the rest of their lives. Spinalonga, which lies in Elounda Bay in northwest Crete, was, from 1903 to 1957, used to house lepers and forcibly segregate them from society. It is a strange backdrop for a summer novel, but Victoria Hislop has ambitiously used it as the setting for her first book, «The Island» (Review, UK, 2005). The story is told in four parts, the contemporary tale being that of Alexis Fielding, who, on the verge of becoming engaged to a «perfect» man, isn’t so sure she truly loves him. When they take a trip to Crete, she decides to visit Plaka, the village where her mother was raised, searching for solutions to questions her mum never answered. It is in Plaka, across from the leper colony of Spinalonga, that Alexis first hears, through a childhood friend, her mother’s full history and discovers the secrets she’s kept hidden throughout the years. However, the best parts of the story involve Alexis’s great-grandmother and her family, the inhabitants of Plaka and their relationship with the macabre island just off their shore. These two communities come alive in Hislop’s tale, with the villagers’ daily routines, causes for celebration and woe providing a quick history of Crete from the 1930s. She has clearly researched the island’s past and traditions. Hislop beautifully handles the conflicting emotions of fear, submission and resentment caused by the German occupation of Crete, and its subsequent resistance, during WWII. She isn’t quite as successful in portraying the lives of those incarcerated on Spinalonga – the immediate and complete isolation from their families, the unsightliness and pain of the disease and the futility felt by the inflicted. The author makes mention of these, to be sure, but it would have had deeper resonance had she spent more time on the difficulties and practicalities of their lives than on the character-driven plot. The colony is described as a bustling, almost happy community, something that seems to jar with its very function. And this reader would have benefited from being provided with a definition of leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae) – or Hansen’s disease, after the Norwegian scientist who isolated the bacillus in 1873 – its transmission, symptoms and prognosis. For the needs of her story, Hislop delays addressing the illness itself for far too long, leaving the reader with the same ignorant horror of this most ancient disease as many of the villagers. It becomes a strange specter hanging over the otherwise lighter plot. But love conquers all, even in the leper colony, and the patient and good reap rewards while the bad and intolerant get their just desserts. Hislop’s characterizations of Alexis’s grandmother and great aunt are well-drawn and she does an especially good job with the elder, selfish sister and, Georgiou, their long-suffering, stoic father. Greek speakers may be thrown by the genitive form of the nominative Georgios and the name of one of her protagonists as Fortini, rather than the more common Greek name, Fotini. When the story returns to the present and Alexis, the reader wonders whether they’ve been privy to the author’s own saga, since much of the story could be autobiographical, possibly the secrets of Hislop’s forbears. Much the way Jeffrey Eugenides’s «Middlesex» or Nikos Themelis’s «The Quest» leave one wondering where fact gives way to fiction, Hislop seems to have followed the tenet to new authors: «Write what you know.» But Hislop doesn’t illuminate further. The publishers say only that the Greek setting for the novel «reflects her passion for a country she has visited over 25 times in the past two decades,» as well as that she is writing another novel, also set in the Mediterranean. «The Island» is to be published by Review, an imprint of Hodder/Headline, in hardback in June 2005.