Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Island by Victoria Hislop

I first heard about The Island while on honeymoon. We were staying at The Blue Palace near Elounda in Crete. It's a stunning location, with rooms scattered around a beautiful blue bay overlooking the island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga has a complex and fascinating history for such a small island. It was occupied by various people: from Arabs to Venetians, Ottomans to the Leper colony, the last group who lived on the island from 1903 to 1957. People suffering from leprosy were sent from all over Greece. It was an isolated life where supplies were sent across from the mainland village of Plaka by boat.

For several evenings, we would sit and contemplate the shadows of derelict ruins from the comfort of our favourite fish taverna in Plaka. It was hard to imagine what life was like in the leper colony, even when we took the tour around the island.

Victoria Hislop was also inspired by the story of Spinalonga. In The Island she tells the tale of a family. Alexis is about to go on holiday with her fiance. But she has nagging doubts: about her relationship and about how little she knows about her mother's Greek family. It is only when she asks Alexis to take a sealed letter to an old friend in Plaka that the story of her Cretan relatives unfolds.

The Island was published to great acclaim, remaining at the top of the book charts for weeks after it secured a place on Richard and Judy's Summer Reads. She certainly paints a vivid picture of the isolation of the island and the stigma attached to leprosy. However, I found the pace pedestrian at times. When the plot covers a longer time span you lose what is powerful about the book: Hislop is best when she homes in on the claustrophobia of life on Spinalonga or in Plaka.

An enjoyable - but not perfect - summer read.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Flâneur by Edmund White

'A flaneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks - and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.'

So says Edmund White on the back cover of The Flâneur. Drawing on his experience of living in Paris in the 80s, he takes you on a random journey around the city. From St Germain, home to some of the world's finest intellectual minds, to Parc Monceau, close to the Arc de Triomphe, where eminent banking dynasties lived in kitsch opulence.

There are tales of Sartre, Baudelaire, Josephine Baker, Strindberg, Napoleon: painters, philosophers, writers and aesthetes. As White seemingly stumbles upon place after place, you learn about the hidden history and all of the cultural, intellectual and political significance.

This is a fascinating - if at times rambling - guidebook to Paris and an extraordinary way of life.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Kindest Thing by Cath Staincliffe

What would you do if your husband asked you to help him kill himself? Cath Staincliffe provides a heart-rending account of one woman's journey through this terrible dilemma.

The book is tightly written. There is clever use of flashback: taking the reader through the highs and lows of Deborah Shelley and Neil Draper's life together. We reflect with Deborah, while she awaits trial in Styal Prison, on Neil's diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, his fast demise, and how the illness cruelly takes away the passion, power and essence of the man she loves unequivocally.

We learn about their children, Adam and Sophie, their characters and their past. And how they both deal very differently with the pain of losing their father. All the details of their lives ring true. There is no hype. And for anyone who has done jury service, the court scenes will no doubt bring back memories.

There is a searing intensity to the writing. You feel her pain as a mother as she watches - helpless - as her children's lives are torn apart. There is a moving honesty and lack of artifice in her narration as she recounts the build up to the day Neil died.

I wasn't initially convinced of the need for the sex scenes. But on balance, they show - in a realistic way - that this was a passionate relationship with a closeness many would envy. Which makes the loss felt even keener.

The Kindest Thing is a gripping portrayal - told without prejudice - of a family coping with assisted suicide. I highly recommend it.