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. Itis 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). PerhapsHislop 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’
References: Dickens, C. 2000. David Copperfield. Ware:
Wordsworth Classics. Hislop, V. 2006. The Island.