As London-born Alexis Fielding, a modern-day college graduate, explores her past, she is drawn to visit a former Greek leper colony. This storyline, however, is merely the wrapper for the intricate tale of the Petrakis family, Alexis’s ancestors. Alexis feels that understanding her aloof mother’s background would help her determine the direction her own life should take. But her mother refuses to speak of her past. Instead, she encourages Alexis to contact an old friend, Fortini, who resides in Plaka, a coastal town on the island of Crete. Fortini’s story reveals a history of secrecy and guilt that provides closure for Alexis’s mother and a better perspective for Alexis regarding her mother’s behavior.
Prior to the 1960s, those diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease, commonly called leprosy, were banished to secluded colonies, often on remote islands. Until the development of a cure, which was delayed by World War II, no one with leprosy was allowed to mingle with the general population. Spinalonga, situated off the shore from Plaka, provided a home for Greece’s afflicted. Alexis’s great-grandfather, Georgiou, serviced the islands by boat, making deliveries and ferrying doctors, and various women from the family eventually call Spinalonga their home.
The combination of leprosy, Greece, and World War II provides a fascinating historical backdrop to a story that explores relationships and the disruptions that happen to all families to some extent. The difference is that this family’s problems could not be kept closeted away, and they affected all participants in ways much less subtle than the actual disfigurements of the disease’s victims.
Originally printed in the UK in 2005, this first US edition is engaging, educational, and provides ample fodder for further thoughts, making it a perfect book club choice.