“At last-a beach book with a heart.” When I read this quotation from the Observer, my heart sank. I did not feel inclined to read, far less review, a novel in the holiday fiction genre. However, the extraordinary setting of a real-life twentieth-century leper colony makes The Island a more thought- provoking book than one might initially expect.
A brief synopsis of the story suggests a somewhat formulaic plot. An unfulfilled, young woman, Alexis Fielding, visits Crete determined to uncover her family history. Sofia, her mother, has always refused to speak of her early life on the island. The book is not, however, a bildungsroman. Most of the narrative is devoted to the period of twenty years prior to 1958, the year Sofia left Crete. Alexis arrives in the village of Plaka and meets her mother’s old friend, Fotini. Alexis learns that, in 1939, her great-grandmother, Eleni Patrakis, was banished to the leper colony on Spinalonga, a small island off the coast of Crete. The narrative centres on the lives of Eleni’s two daughters, Maria and Anna, and their turbulent relationships with two cousins, Andreas and Manoli. The two women are very different. Maria is faithful, dependable and selfless whilst Anna is ambitious, wild and entirely selfish. Although Andreas and Manoli are dopplegängers, they, too, are very different. Andreas is constant and responsible, if a little boring, whereas his cousin is reckless, unreliable and exciting. The contrast between the two sisters (and the two cousins) is a little unrealistic; Maria is flawless, whilst Anna seems to possess no redeeming features at all. As the story unfolds, a familiar, well-worn scenario emerges and the tragic end to the relationship between Anna and Andreas is all too predictable. Furthermore, the plot lacks credibility on several occasions. For example, why would Sofia’s devoted and emotionally intelligent parents choose the night before she leaves home for university to reveal a devastating secret about her past?
By far the most interesting and original aspect of the novel is the description of the lives of the inhabitants of the leper colony. The myth that the disease was highly contagious prevailed at that time and, as soon as leprosy sufferers in the area were diagnosed, they were banished to Spinalonga. This was a death sentence, as lepers were not allowed off the island. Many died slow, painful deaths; a lucky few whose disease was not too aggressive died of old age. None saw their family and friends again.
Although its inhabitants live in exile, Hyslop portrays Spinalonga as a microcosm of Cretan society. The colony has a church, a school, a hospital, cafes and shops. It elects a leader who has to lobby the government regularly for more funds to improve living standards. The island’s residents experience the same emotions as their healthy counterparts. They fall in love, get married and even have children. They feel jealousy, especially when there is a large influx of intellectuals due to the closure of a leprosy hospital on the Greek mainland. The people of Spinalonga, understandably, feel despair but they also experience hope, especially with the arrival of Dr Kyritsis who is working on a cure for the disease.
Despite their desperate situation, the inhabitants of the colony live in a civilised, egalitarian community, in sharp contrast to their neighbours on Crete. Ironically, the life of Dimitri, the young boy who is exiled with Eleni, improves when he is sent to Spinalonga. Transported from a life of grinding poverty with his family, he is nurtured and educated on the island.
Until its closure in 1957, Spinalonga was one of the last leper colonies in Europe. It is a chilling thought that even as recently as the 1950s, leprosy sufferers were still being exiled there. Notwithstanding its flaws, Hyslop’s novel forces the reader to reflect on the prejudice and social exclusion experienced by sufferers of certain diseases.