The Island. Victoria Hislop.

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I’ve been asked at least a dozen times in the last fortnight whether we have any plans for the summer holidays. Why do people ask? Is it just a handy conversation filler for the month of June? Well, the short answer is no. No, we have no plans. There is simply not enough money left in the kitty for the sort of holiday that gets planned. We are hoping to stage an impromptu charge on a camping site on some sunny friday afternoon with no forethought and less planning. Should be a hoot.

Mysteriously recession-proof women all around me are getting their pale Irish bodies buffed and beautified in preparation for a mass exodus to the sun (Irish people couldn’t care less which country they travel to as long as they are guaranteed to find the sun). I went in search of the budget option to escapism, ie; a beach book.  No Ryanair, no sunburn, no sandy sheets; brilliant!! (Oh God, who am I kidding here?)

I bought this book in a charity shop last week. It bore a Richard and Judy Summer Read sticker which was all the recommendation I needed given that the price was a hefty one euro. I skimmed the back cover, saw the words Crete and love and I was sold.

Somebody was have a laugh at my expense because my beach book turned out to be set on a leper colony.

The book has a weak beginning. Alexis goes on holiday to Crete with her boyfriend but, instead of soaking up the sun with him, she goes in search of her mother’s family history. Alexis locates  an aging family friend who treats her to a good meal and then unfolds the family drama beginning with, ‘Your great-grandmother lived on that island, she was a leper.’

Ah, listen, this is not at all what I had in mind when I mentioned escapism.

I can imagine myself sitting with my cousins in the kitchen of an elderly aunt. She would be flitting around, cutting up Mr. Kipling cakes to make them stretch and spooning tea-leaves into an enormous, stainless steel teapot. The cousins would toss the conversation back and forth, asking after neighbours and relatives. Then, just as she lifted the catering-size pot with two hands and began to pour, my aunt’s ears would prick at the mention of a name. A shudder of excitement would shake her voice as she realised she had a great story to tell. She might begin with a simple statement, ‘There was terrible tragedy in that family’. Well, who wouldn’t want to know more? We would listen, enthralled while she spilled the ancient gossip. A story of some horror too distant to scare us. A story of sadness passed through and survived. A story of life got on with. No neat beginnings or happy endings, just a thread followed for a while and dropped. That’s how real stories are told.

Victoria Hislop seems to have that bit of magic. This book reads like a real story. I was completely drawn in.  I could not put it down. I read it while I stirred the tomato sauce and while I blow-dried my hair (result; not good). I got my bit of escapism and felt all the better for it. If you are looking for a good yarn this could be it.

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