GP Book Group: The Island

Alexis Fielding is a young woman living in London. Her mother, Sofia, was brought up in Plaka, a village in Crete, but she is very guarded when it comes to discussing her childhood.

Author: Victoria Hislop

Review £6.99 ISBN 0-7553-0951-0

Determined to understand more about her mother’s past, Alexis travels to Crete armed with a letter addressed to an old friend of her mother. There she finds that Plaka is a short boat-ride from Spinalonga, the now deserted island that formerly served as Greece’s leper colony. With the aid of her mother’s friend, Fortini, Alexis discovers the reality behind her mother’s family, its binding connection to Spinalonga and how the effects of leprosy and World War II moulded her ancestry.

Taken at face-value, The Island is a lightweight first novel. It would certainly have benefited from some intensive rewriting and strong editing. However, that said, it is an easy read and had a certain appeal that made it difficult not to finish. The main draw for the medical mind is the depiction of life as a leper on the island of Spinalonga, an image greatly enhanced if the reader has already visited the island. Although lacking the quality of detail that greater research and imagination could have brought, the subject of leprosy is treated with great sensitivity and those suffering from the disease are portrayed with dignity. The book also manages to show how damaging this ancient disease was to those families and communities ripped apart by its presence.

One subtle thread within the story is the enlightened attitude of the doctors treating the lepers, as compared to the prejudiced attitudes of society as a whole; ignorance of the cause of leprosy being the basis of their fears. For me, it highlighted the importance of impartiality when treating certain conditions that, even today, we do not fully understand. Additionally, one outcome of The Island’s popularity is the refocusing of minds on the problem of leprosy, which even today has devastating effects around the world. 

Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler is a GP, writer and poet, living in Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire

What GP readers thought about The Island:

Dr Elizabeth So, a GP in London, says: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Although the setting reminded me of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it did not bore with long pages of description. While I struggled to get through Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, I really could not put this book down.

‘The idea of being banished to an island for fear of contaminating the rest of society really haunted me, and I was moved to realise that the inhabitants of Spinalonga created a relatively normal existence rather than just dwindle away the years as outcasts of society. It gives us hope that being banished from one’s family and friends with a disease does not have to mean living as the “walking dead”. The two doctors were portrayed as heroes, and as there was finally a cure there was a happy ending. It was an inspiring read for us in the medical profession.’ 

Dr Richard Bull, a GP in Sheffield, says: ‘A fascinating read from cover to cover. It was an absorbing, endearing and believable account of Cretan village life and the devastation, tragedy and prejudice associated with leprosy. This novel successfully weaves the story through successive generations.’

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