Book Review: ‘One August Night’ by Victoria Hislop

5th August 1957. The island of Spinalonga closes its leper colony. And a moment of violence has devastating consequences.

When time stops dead for Maria Petrakis and her sister, Anna, two families splinter apart and, for the people of Plaka, the closure of Spinalonga is forever coloured with tragedy.

In the aftermath, the question of how to resume life looms large. Stigma and scandal need to be confronted and somehow, for those impacted, a future built from the ruins of the past.

Number one bestselling author Victoria Hislop returns to the world and characters she created in The Island – the award-winning novel that remains one of the biggest selling reading group novels of the century. It is finally time to be reunited with Anna, Maria, Manolis and Andreas in the weeks leading up to the evacuation of the island… and beyond.

When my friend and colleague, Sarah, told me that she was reading a sequel to ‘The Island’, I was immediately interested. I remember reading ‘The Island’ in 2006 when it first came out. I’m a sucker for anything medical, and the idea of a novel set in a leper colony fascinated me. I have fond memories of reading that novel, and so was really pleased when Sarah offered for me to borrow this sequel.

‘One August Night’ picks up pretty much where ‘The Island’ finished. The August night in question is that of the return of cured patients from the leper colony. Maria, who we first met in ‘The Island’ is one of these patients, and the novel tells of her new life in Plaka, a village on the mainland.

Lots of readers have commented on how Hislop’s adoration, and respect for, Greece and its people comes across clearly in her novels. There is a real escapism in reading this book, and her settings are so clearly described that you can almost feel the Greek sun pouring down on you. Pubished during the most recent ‘plague’, I can see why this long-awaited sequel was so popular when it was released last year. We can’t travel to Greece, but we can read Victoria Hislop. For the moment, that will have to do.

Anna’s beauty was a gift as well as a curse, and a woman like that will always drive men to extreme behaviour. It wasn’t all her fault, you know.

Although there is little to ‘like’ about the character of Anna Vandoulakis, I found her to be the most well-rounded and ‘padded out’ character in the novel. We probably find out more her intentions and motivations than any of the others, and it was a shame that she didn’t stick around too long. Many of the other characters were a little too one-dimensional for my tastes. However, if you prefer to get on with the plot rather than getting to know the characters too much, then you may well like this novel.

This is not a novel about leprosy and, as such, does lose some of the appeal of its predecessor. My recommendation to other readers would be that, if like me it’s been a while since you’ve read ‘The Island’, it’s well worth re-reading it before indulging in this latest trip to Crete. I think that you’d get a lot more out of it and feel more invested in the characters if you remember all of their backstories. Whilst there is a detailed sense of place in this novel, there is much less time taken over characterisation, and this prevents it from being read effectively as a stand-alone novel.

I did get a little wound-up by the pace of ‘One August Night’. Whilst I normally find a shorter novel appealing, this story was told at break-neck speed. We are told about some incredibly emotional and poignant events with very little description of emotion, in fact, in places, Hislop’s style is rather factual. I found it interesting to read in the Afterword that Hislop had been a travel journalist when she first visited Spinalonga, and I think that this is still present in her style, which can sometimes read like a list of facts without the exploration that I would have liked.

I appreciated being able to escape to Crete for a few days whilst I read this, and there could have been far worse novels to be reading whilst it snows in April, and we’re still in lockdown. This would make a great holiday read, and next time I visit Greece, I’ll be taking a suitcase load of Victoria Hislop’s novels with me.

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