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Editor's note: Radio 4's Bookclub is on at 4pm this Sunday 2 September and is repeated on Thursday 6 September at 3.30pm. You can also listen online after broadcast or download the podcast. Here, Jim Naughtie talks about the themes that are discussed in Bookclub this week about The Island by Victoria Hislop. - PM

Crete is an atmospheric island. I remember once walking the gorge that seems to split it in two, and becoming entranced by the stories that Patrick Leigh Fermor tells inimitably in his memoir of the war of how the partisans hid in those crevasses as they pursued their daring fight against the invader. There's an atmosphere there that is a combination of remoteness and antiquity, a feeling that it has special ways that have never changed. But I didn't visit Spinalonga. Victoria Hislop's novel, The Island, a best-seller that seemed to come from nowhere uses that place to spin a marvelous yarn. Spinalonga was the leper colony.

Victoria was hypnotized by it when she went across from Crete by chance, taken by the story of the people who were effectively imprisoned there, held by their incurable disease, and separated from their families just across the water. It's a story, she told this month's group of readers, that made her cry regularly while she was writing it. The central character is Eleni, a schoolteacher who contracts the disease and whose husband, Yorgis, has travelled back and forth to the island with food supplies before his wife is diagnosed and has to go there. The book contrasts the two worlds of Spinalonga and Plaka, across the water, which has no leprosy but in some ways emerges as a rather darker place. In that sense, the story is about the resilience of human beings who can find ways of never abandoning hope.

The story comes out through the travels and investigations of Alexis Fielding, who's travelled to Crete from London to piece together her family history, and she discovers the story of Spinalonga. Like many of us I suppose, she underestimated how recently there were colonies where the incurables were confined, and it is a shock. Victoria described her feelings on going there for the first time. "My first impression of going to Spinalonga was that people hadn't lived miserable lives there. I don't believe in ghosts - white phantoms - but I believe in atmosphere very strongly, and in Spinalonga, people left something of themselves behind, and the atmosphere was not unhappy."

Alexis learns the story of the two daughters of Elena and Yorgis, Anna and Maria, who are really black and white, ying and yang. Maria is the less beautiful of the two, but much more of an angel by nature. (Victoria discovered as she was writing that she was interested in how beauty can begin to corrupt a woman's character...and that's what happens to Anna). Through them, and Yorgis, who moves back and forth to the island - the only character who can inhabit both worlds, as he has done for years - Alexis lifts the layers in the family story, which naturally enough produces some surprises. I won't give them away.

And I suggested to Victoria that in part The Island was a meditation on secrecy, and in our discussion readers expressed their attraction to the idea in the book that secrecy can sometimes be an affliction that is as desperately sad as leprosy itself: that the deceptions and cover-ups that we practise are a part of our lives, and a disease that, to some degree, we are all condemned to suffer. Sometimes the inmates of Spinalonga, cut off from the world, live more fulfilling lives than those they leave behind.

Our next programme will be with the American writer Marilynne Robinson discussing Gilead on the first Sunday in October, and our next recording is in London on October 15 when we'll be talking to Andrew Miller about his Costa-winning novel, Pure. A treat.

Happy reading

Jim

Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by HorshamScot

    on 28 Sept 2012 13:50

    I visited this island a few years ago and read the book recently. It is a haunting place with a fascinating history and the novel creates an interesting and beautifully told story. I agree that the island has a serenity about it ( despite its derelict state) and feel sure that the former inhabitants would have been very pleased with its portrayal. Very glad that both the place and the novel have been promoted on BBC radio 4 as both are worth visiting!

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