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Why the Island is NOT Depressing, But a Redemptive Read for the Armchair Traveler

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

the island of Spinalonga
The island of Spinalonga, a former leper colony. Photo: By Ggia — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sometimes I find a book that was published years ago, and I wonder how I missed it. Such was the case with The Island, by Victoria Hislop, a novel published in 2006.

The unusual “hook” of The Island that lured me in

I was intrigued by the description of the book. Sure, it was a conventional set-up. A young woman is delving into her family history, a closely-held secret past that her mother refuses to talk about. But The Island added in an element that I had heard of only in Sunday school more than 50 years ago: leprosy.

Contrary to being turned off by reading about this disease, I was intrigued.

“What? I thought leprosy was an ancient misfortune, not a modern-era illness?”

Leprosy was an unusual book hook, and I’m a sucker for the unusual. Not only did The Island involve this out-of-the-ordinary concept, but it was also set on the beautiful island of Crete. I traveled to Greece once in my life and fell in love with the breath-taking clarity of the air, the rich food, and the vivacity of its people. I’ll probably never get to go again, but this book promised to take me back to the heat and color of that beautiful country. (It did.)

The story in a nutshell

Alexis is a young woman who wants to learn about the past that her mother never talked about. It’s a journey of discovery when she visits her deceased grandmother’s best friend, Fotini, on the island of Crete.

The story unfolds. Eleni, the beloved schoolteacher of Plaka, develops symptoms of leprosy and is shipped to the leper colony on Spinalonga, an island just a few miles from Plaka across the strait. What she finds is a desolate, impoverished community of people waiting to die until a boatload of wealthy, prominent Athenians diagnosed with leprosy arrives.

The newcomers and existing residents eventually band together to create a flourishing community of people who struggle together to not just survive but thrive in their isolation.

Eleni has two daughters, Anna and Maria, and much of the story centers on these two women, the grandmother and aunt of Alexis. Fotini poignantly tells the story of the previous two generations of Alexis’ family, including the fact that both Eleni and Maria were lepers, a fact that Alexis’ mother desperately wanted to forget.

Amidst stories of family triumphs and tragedies, the German invasion of Crete in 1941, and insights into the search and discovery of a cure for leprosy, The Island delivers a powerful, compelling story in a beautiful setting.

I could almost feel myself sitting in Fotini’s taverna by the sea, listening to her tale while I sated myself on moussaka, warm air, and the smell of the ocean.

The popularity of The Island

I wasn’t the only one who discovered The Island and loved it.

As a writer, I am wowed by the fact that Victoria Hislop’s first novel won so much acclaim and secured her future. She was awarded the “Newcome of the Year Award at the Galaxy British Book awards, 2007. (It’s what every writer hope for, isn’t it?)

Interestingly, Hislop is British writing about Greek culture. She has spent much time in the country and traveled extensively there, but she is not Greek. In one podcast by Gabriel Fleming for Audible, Hislop admits that she was surprised by the Greek people’s wholehearted embrace of The Island.

The Greek people liked it so much, in fact, that the major Greek media company, Mega, bought the rights to produce a 26-part drama series. The Island television series aired from 2010–2011 and became the most successful television series ever broadcast in Greece. Since then, Turkey and Croatia have also purchased rights to it.

Victoria Hislop continues to write successful novels, and her work has been translated into 20 languages. The Island is an international bestseller.

The love-hate relationship

I was surprised when I read several reviews that gave this novel one star. Several of them said they didn’t get much into the book because they couldn’t stand reading the depressing story of people who were condemned to die on an isolated island because they were ill.

True. It’s a sad story.

But trust me. Keep reading. The real story is in how the leper community worked together to make what they thought would be the end of their lives into rich daily experiences filled with compassion and friendship.

In the previously mentioned interview, Hislop herself said that she could never have written this story unless it ended with hope.

It does.

I’m hoping Netflix or HBOMax will pick up this series and redo it in English so I can “visit” Greece again and revel in The Island’s wonderful story of family, redemption, and the triumph of science.

It may be the only way I get to travel to that lovely land again!


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