This is Victoria Hislop’s first novel, and it’s a beautiful one at that. The story spans effortlessly over 3 generations of a Cretan family and their heartbreaking realtionship with leprosy on the isle of Spinalonga.
It is in many way classed as a beach read but, as far as beach reads go it’s a good one. The story begins with Alex Fielding, a young woman starting off on a mission to unlock her mother’s past which has been hidden from her for as long as she can remember. What follows is a tale of loves, deaths, affairs and true loves all centred around the leper colony in Crete. In this respect yes, it is a beach read and in many ways predictable. However, it does draw you into the story and tug on your heart strings in many well written scenes that make you think how unfair life is sometimes in dealing out its punishments.
I found the most interesting part to be Hislop’s view on life within Spinalonga’s walls. She paints a civilised society with shopkeepers, leaders, teachers, clergy, doctors – everything that a ‘normal’ community has. The inhabitants celebrate festivals, births, deaths and even marriages all behind the stone walls which hold them as prisoners from a society that repels them.
Millennia after the Bible was written the idea of a leper has hardly changed from that traditionally diseased being, banished far from civilisation in the hope that their curse will not spread. The book presents how leprosy was found and cured in the context of Spinalonga but the message reaches a lot farther.
When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer she noticed straight away a difference in how she was treated. She saw old friends avert their eyes when she walked past and people who avoided greeting her on the street.
Illness, contagious or not has a way of repelling people as though they are afraid to be associated with it. In the case of leprosy and its contagious nature the physical separation was necessary but in this day and age you would think that we would be more worldly wise?
The message is clear – illness does not have to stop you from loving, caring, and enjoying your life and should most certainly not make others think differently either.
Despite some adverse criticisms in magazines and such I enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely worth a read if it comes your way. Bring it to the beach (or bed) and enjoy!