The Island - A Book review

This short review aims to briefly discuss The Island by Victoria Hislop and some of the literary devices employed in creating a plot. Hislop’s penmanship draws the reader into the depth of a story of grave personal and social tragedy, only made bearable by the glimmer of hope. It is a story of struggle, the endurance of love, and the tragic effects of leprosy. Based on Spinalonga and the nearby towns on the Greek island of Crete it graphically portrays the discrimination its sufferers had to endure. They were cast away with little support from their government. Some were forgotten by their families who feared of becoming themselves social outcasts. It is a deep tale that focuses the reader on the shame a family had to endure through no fault of its own. Photographs, free indirect speech, imagery, and other objects that link the present to the past bring the story to life.

Hislop opens her tale with a chilling foreshadowing of the tragedy and humiliation to follow later on in the book ‘… [T]he chill of the autumnal air encircled the woman, paralysing her body […]’ (Hislop, 2006, p.1). This abridged example contains a number of carefully selected words that stir the imagination. The word chill is one that conjures images of uncomfortable shivers; it is something to run away from and perhaps find comfort by the warmth of a domestic hearth. This is followed by the heaviness of the autumnal air; a gloomy atmosphere of a melancholy season, during which the leaves die and fall to the ground, and the sun is obscured by grey clouds. For the woman in this sentence, this oppression is inescapable. Her body is paralysed by the cruel nature, which has taken away the warmth and happiness of the summer. This intricately written sentence may be alluding to the suppression of leprosy; an illness that brings an inescapable chill, and the heaviness of imminent death, causing both mental and physical paralysis - that may be literal, or in the form of exclusion from society. Charles Dickens used a similar technique of foreboding in his book David Copperfield, when Master Copperfield tells us that young Em’ly would have been better off dead at a very young age; his statement was despite his love for her. Dickens emphasises that this mortal wish must not be forgotten as it will play a vital role later on - ‘This may be premature. I have set it down to soon, perhaps. But let it stand’ (Dickens, 2000, p.36). Hislop in a similar but less overt way tells us that important events are to unfold, and invites us to find out more. But what does the story tell us?

The story is built around the creation of a leper colony on Spinalonga, where the Greek government ostracised those diagnosed with the disease. Alexis, who is half-Greek half-English and the descendant of a local family, visits the town opposite Spinalonga to discover more about her family. Unbeknown to her, her great-grandma was a leper who died on Spinalonga. Alexis, who is being told the story by her mother’s childhood friend Fotini, also serves another purpose to the story. She is the representation of the modern perception of leprosy. Through her eyes we discover that perhaps the biblical image of ‘the bell swinging-sufferer crying Unclean! Unclean’ and his or her feelings of despair may still be prevalent in our modern society. Through her ears we discover the contemporary Spinalonga of the first half of the 20th century, and the scars on those who made it to the 21st. With a number of characters in various roles and places though, it is easy to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing. How did Hislop weave a plot that kept us wanting more?

This was achieved through the omniscient third person narrator leading us through the events as they unfold in a unique way for each one of the characters. Although they are connected by the common theme of leprosy, they are individually affected in a profound way. Hislop uses free indirect speech to great effect. For example, when Alexis travels to Spinalonga she is left alone on the isle for two hours. ‘Supposing Gerasimo forgot her? […]  She had never been so entirely alone […]’ (Hislop, 2005, p.25). This literary technique focuses the reader on the feelings of abandonment and the emotions the characters are experiencing. In other words, free indirect speech helps the reader see the world through the characters’ eyes; a useful technique to possess in the cabinet of writing skills. During these opening lines, Hislop uses strong imagery to walk with the reader along the paths of the now desolate isle ‘… [T]here was only one way to go - forward into the dark, claustrophobic passageway’ (ibid. p.26). This sentence is a poignant indication of the entrapment faced by the inhabitants of Spinalonga; no alternative or a way back out of this situation. Although the adverb forward can have a positive connotation, on this occasion it creates tension as the reader moves into the oppressive and bleak tunnel. The adjective dark may also allude to the emotional darkness brought about by the expectation of death from the disease; or together with claustrophobic to the finality of eternal entrapment in a coffin. What has the future in store?

The hope of the summer returning, a cure being found, and families being re-united once again are what they can hope for.  ‘… [T]he fragrant lavender which hung in a bunch […]’ (ibid. p.39). Perhaps Hislop here uses the lavender in two ways. Many years ago, Alexis’s great aunt Maria embroidered a pillowcase and filled it with lavender for Fotini’s newborn baby (ibid. p.321). Alexis’s waking up and discovering the aroma of the lavender connects her indirectly with her great auntie Maria; unknown to her she is receiving the same present that Fotini received from Maria and sharing the same floral aroma. Lavender is a summer flower, which evokes images of bright sundrenched fields full of life - and perhaps alludes to a life free from illness and despair. In a way, the hopes and wishes from the past generations have become a reality of the current one. But where does the past end and where does the present begin?
The end of a chapter is indicated by an unspoken question about the future. A desire to discover how the new challenges will be faced is kindled in the reader’s mind, making the next page more important than the last one. This ensures that sub-plots knit a perfect pattern which only becomes clear when the whole picture is presented at the end. The past and the present come together in harmony, allowing the reader to make sense of the events of a lifetime. ‘The ending of the old year and the beginning of the new was a watershed […]’ (ibid. p.110). This is the penultimate sentence of chapter five. It does away with the past and gives us hope for the future. In this chapter, the events are quite tragic [I shall not reveal them to allow you the pleasure of unspoilt reading]. It is interesting that the word old is used as an adjective, instead of last [year] for example. This may also be alluding to the previous generations, who have now been put to retirement, or died from leprosy. Their passing is marked by the imaginary watershed, which also denotes the start of a new era. It is worth noting that the word old is not contrasted by the word young. New is used instead, indicating something fresh and modern. This might be in the form of medical advancements, or improved aid from the government. It is a cliffhanger that ends the chapter with the birth of fresh imagery.

In conclusion, Hislop uses strong imagery to help the reader’s imagination live this tale of tragedy, hope, love, despair, and victory. A tale that recounts the humiliation faced by many, when this insidious illness stealthily took control of their bodies; and lives. Hislop hooks in the reader by skilfully foreboding the tragedy, whilst always keeping the dim flicker of hope alight. Carefully selected connections between the present and the past, act as signposts of the familial line, creating a nostalgia feeling similar to the one that many of the characters may have felt. For many of them, going forward was not progress but mortification; even partial physical necrosis and the anticipation of a painful death. This was balanced with the refusal to surrender, the creation of communities, and the release for many. Hislop’s literary skills have given hope that life can grow in the most barren of environments.


P.S. In my research I discovered that Victoria Hislop and I share a common passion for an immortal classic book Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Victoria Hislop’s says: ‘A book that changed me … Wuthering Heights. It’s full of literary depth – but intensely exciting too. It woke me up’ ( 2006-11).

Dickens, C. 2000. David Copperfield. Ware: Wordsworth Classics.
Hislop, V. 2006. The Island. London: Headline Review. (2006-2011), About Victoria. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 18 Aug 2013].

1 comment:

  1. I was impressed by the use of your language. Really interesting and well pointed. As it is a book I adore and a writer that I admire, you managed to put me back again to the atmosphere that she intends to create with her writing and mesmerize the reader. Well described scenes and well selected sentences. I think I would like to read something more about the life in the island, the courage of the lepers and their struggle to survive. Only just because...this is all about. My opinion though!
    In conclusion it's really good! Hope you inspire your readers to read the book and travel to this amazing journey!
    Waiting for your review on Wuthering Heights!