Book No 9 (2021) : One August Night

This is the sequel to Victoria Hislop’s highly successful novel ‘The Island‘, which chronicles the experiences of a young woman sent to Spinalonga, the leper colony off the coast of Crete. I like this novel, although not without reservations – I read it for a second time in 2018.

One August Night‘ is supposedly the story of what happens after a cure for leprosy is discovered and the residents of Spinalonga return to their island communities. Two key characters in ‘The Island‘ are sisters Anna and Maria; Maria had contracted leprosy and been exiled to Spinalonga. Anna, meanwhile, engages in a passionate extra-marital affair with Manoli and gives birth to a daughter, Sofia.

During the island celebrations for the return of its villagers from Spinalonga, Anna is murdered. Someone is convicted of the crime and jailed, whilst her lover takes off to start a new life. I hoped that the novel would pick up Maria’s story and address how she adapts to life after Spinalonga, but instead it spins along-a (see what I did there?!) different storyline.

This whole book feels like a wasted opportunity. Having invested a considerable amount into the development of Maria’s character and circumstances in ‘The Island‘, there was a rich seam of material to be mined in a sequel. Instead, leprosy and its consequences are virtually ignored in favour of a bizarre exploration of Manoli’s new life and Maria’s prison visits to the murderer. The plot is weak, disjointed and uninteresting, as are the majority of the characters. There was very little to hold my interest and I struggled to finish the novel at all. I can’t help thinking that if this had been a submission to an agent from an unknown new author, it would have either gone in the ‘Reject’ pile or been published after several major edits. As it is, Victoria Hislop has seen another bestseller hit the shelves.

For me, Ms Hislop was drinking in the last chance saloon and I’m afraid she’s blown it. Nothing she has written since ‘The Island‘ has equalled it, despite my fervent hoping. Having read every single thing she’s produced afterwards, desperately looking for the same emotional connection I felt with Alexis, Eleni and Maria initially, nothing has been as good. I was very excited when a friend lent me ‘One August Night‘. When I’d finished, I was even more glad. Because if I’d wasted £12.99 of my own money on a copy, I’d have been gutted.

Book No 4 (2015) : The Secret History

Secret History Whenever I read lists of the best books ever, Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History‘ often makes an appearance. It was published in 1992 and became a bestseller. I’ve avoided tackling it before now as I’ve gathered from reviews and comments that it is rather an intellectual book. Having eventually finished the novel, my conclusion is that my reservations were largely well founded.

Richard Papen narrates the story; he is an outsider, but is gradually drawn into an elite group of Classical Greek scholars, whose classes are taught solely by the charismatic Julian Morrow. Inspired by the ancient Greek influences of Dionysus, the God of wine and ecstasy, the students try to create their own Bacchanal, a drunken revel whose participants indulge in sexual experimentation and drug-taking. They succeed, but in doing so, a man is murdered. In order to cover up the murder, the students then have to eliminate one of their own small class. This is not a spoiler, as the reader knows from the very outset that Bunny has been killed. The novel explores the events leading up to and following  his death.

In saying what I really think about this book, I am anxious not to be written off as a dullard. It is true that I have not studied Classics since Dotty Daniels’ lessons in Year 8 (the 2nd year in my day!) and my knowledge has not expanded greatly since then. This did mean that some of the classical references and analogies in ‘The Secret History’ were all Greek to me; but not all of them and I don’t think it was this which prevented my enjoyment of the novel. I totally failed to engage with any of the dysfunctional characters, whose internal life remains largely unexplored. They are self-obsessed, have dubious morals, spend 90% of the time drunk, stoned, asleep or eating and the other 10% being generally languid – à la Sebastian Flyte, only with less charm. The first half of the book was far better than the second but by the time I had waded to the 628th page, I was so bored I think my eyeballs were actually bleeding.

My only concern now is that I also have Tartt’s third novel, ‘The Goldfinch‘ perched on a shelf next to me, rustling its feathers and fixing me with its beady,black eye. It has 844 pages but honestly, it will be a while before I can tackle any more Tartt-ness.