A young Englishwoman discovers her family’s secret links to a Cretan leper colony, in an unusually humane saga.
A bestseller in the U.K., British author Hislop’s debut pays affecting tribute to the victims of leprosy and those who helped them. Alexis’s mother Sofia has never discussed her family background, but when Alexis plans a trip to Crete with her decreasingly appealing boyfriend Ed, Sofia gives her an introduction to old family friend, Fortini, in the village of Plaka, across from Spinalonga Island, for years a leper colony, but now deserted. Fortini, with Sofia’s permission, begins to narrate the Petrakis family story, starting with Alexis’s grandmother Eleni in 1939, a saintly, married schoolteacher who developed leprosy, moved to Spinalonga and died there, leaving behind her husband and two daughters, Anna and Maria. Willful Anna marries rich Andreas but flirts with his sexier cousin Manoli, who falls in love with good-natured Maria. Their wedding plans are shattered when Maria realizes she too is infected with leprosy and must go to the island. Under the treatment of kind Dr. Kyritsis, Maria is given drugs, and eventually she and the other sufferers are healed and the colony is closed. Anna, meanwhile, has had an affair with Manoli and given birth to Sofia. On the night of Maria’s return to Plaka, Andreas discovers the affair and shoots Anna. Eventually, Maria marries Kyritsis and they bring up Sofia, not revealing until very late her true parentage. Sofia takes the news badly, moves away and lives a life of shame and guilt for the pain she caused. Now she and Alexis are reunited in Plaka and Ed is given his marching orders.
Mediocre fiction is redeemed by considerable empathy in this serious but patchy summer read.