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 10 (2018) : The Island

the islandHaving read and not particularly enjoyed Victoria Hislop’s most recent offering ‘Cartes Postales from Greece‘, I decided to remind myself how good she actually is, by re-visiting ‘The Island’. The fact that we were going to Crete, where the novel is set, made the idea more appealing.

Spinalonga is a leper colony, an island off the north-east coast of Crete. Those diagnosed with leprosy are exiled from their communities, linked only by regular visits from the boatman and two doctors. Eleni is a teacher in the village of Plaka, which overlooks Spinalonga. When she and a young pupil, Dimitri, are diagnosed with the dreaded disease, they both know they will have to say goodbye to their homes and families. Leaving behind her young daughters, Anna and Maria, Eleni is rowed across the water to Spinalonga by Georgiou.

The novel follows the fate of Eleni, Anna and Maria and the residents of Spinalonga. Their story comes to light when Alexa, Eleni’s great-granddaughter, is drawn back to Crete to unravel her mother’s past.

The first time I read ‘The Island’ I cried a lot. When we read, I don’t think we can help internalising the experiences of the characters and relating them to our own lives. So I imagined having to leave my daughter while I was carted off to an island. Heartbreaking. Leprosy doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, either. Then a war comes along and one of your kids marries the wrong guy and ends up sleeping with his cousin. It was all very moving.

But on this re-read, presumably because I knew the story,  I was able to concentrate more on the style and the plot devices, the latter being almost identical to that of ‘Cartes Postales‘. And the book lost a lot of its appeal. The prose is sentimental and not  that clever, the plot becomes more unbelievable the further in you get, especially the [SPOILER ALERT] body count at the end. It just didn’t grab me in the same way as it had the first time.

‘The Island’ is a hugely successful novel which was published in 2006 and there are probably not that many bookworms who haven’t already read it. I do recommend it, if you like an absorbing family saga with a Mediterranean setting, rooted in history. But once is probably enough!

Book No 40 (2014) : The Sunrise

the sunriseI tore into Victoria Hislop’s latest novel with the kind of excitement and expectation usually only reserved for my Christmas stocking. It is Mrs Hislop’s fourth novel and her previous offerings – ‘The Island‘, ‘The Return’ and ‘The Thread’ are all books I have devoured in days. Oh, but the anti-climax once I’d got the wrappings off ‘The Sunrise’: after all the anticipation, it was like discovering M&S sensible briefs when I was hoping for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Plain, uninspiring and so disappointing. Back to earth with a bump.

All of Victoria Hislops’s works have a Mediterranean setting and ‘The Sunrise’ continues the theme, being based on Cyprus during the early 1970’s. It follows the fortunes of Aphroditi and Savvas Papacosta, owners of The Sunrise, a swanky new hotel on the beach at Famagusta. Aphroditi is glamorous and beautiful but when her entrepreneur husband begins to neglect her in favour of renovating another hotel, she is increasingly drawn to Markos Georgiou, the nightclub manager at ‘The Sunrise’. When Turkish forces invade the island in 1974, the Papacostas are forced to evacuate, leaving the hotel in Markos’ care. With 40% of Cyprus in the control of the Turks, Famagusta is left deserted. But two families remain – one Greek, one Turkish. The Georgious and the Özkans are pulled further together by their circumstances, and by the need to survive the devastation around them.

At the beginning of  the book, there is a brief summary of the period in history which the fictional account covers; maybe that should have sounded a warning bell, as I am not a great fan of works which require me to be able to remember and understand historical details at the same time as following a fictional plot. At times the narrative was no more than a reportage of the actual political and military events which took place in Cyprus, rather than an imagined interpretation. Maybe its a left brain/right brain thing? I can’t do two things at once? Whatever the explanation, this book left me feeling dissatisfied. There was not the same sensitive evocation of place that the author has managed to achieve previously and the characters felt thinly-drawn and stereotyped.

Oddly enough, when I first saw the cover of this book, I mis-read the title and thought it was called ‘The Surprise’. It turned out to be two surprises; firstly, that it is called ‘The Sunrise’ and secondly, that I didn’t enjoy it very much.