Exmouth & District

Books – Exmouth 1

October – The Broken House by Horst Krüger
November – Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray
December – The Island by Victoria Hislop
January – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
February – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Not Scared
 by Niccolo Ammaniti

Some recent books

The Island – Victoria Hislop

In many people’s minds, the disease of leprosy is associated with biblical times and is now confined to the past. This is far from true, though treatment has reduced the worldwide population of those infected with leprosy to below 200,000. The disease develops relatively slowly, though there is a more aggressive version, and generally results in disfigurement and an unpleasant death. It was wrongly believed to be highly contagious and carried an enormous social stigma which resulted in lepers being cast out of society, often to live in caves.

Early in the twentieth century, the Greek government decided to transfer the lepers on Crete to a small island called Spinalonga. Many had been living in caves, away from villages and towns, but the change of location made relatively little difference to their living conditions until the 1930’s.

Victoria Hislop uses Spinalonga as the background to her novel The Island. The narrative starts in the near present with Alexis Fielding travelling to Crete with boyfriend Ed. She wished to know more of her mother’s past but had never been able to get her to talk about it. Sofia finally agreed to send a letter to a family friend in the village of Plaka asking her to talk to Alexis. Ed had no wish to go to Plaka and was upset by the idea, so Alexis went by herself. She met Fotini, to whom Sofia had written, and over the next few days, she learned the history of her mother’s family.

Sofia’s grandmother, Maria, was a responsible person who was closely tied to her family. Maria had a sister, Anna, who was flighty and irresponsible; there was something almost biblical about their relationship. Their mother Eleni contracted leprosy and had to go to Spinalonga, which was, at the time, a life sentence. Later, Maria also caught leprosy and was taken across to the island. The descriptions of conditions on Spinalonga and how they changed were based on fact and held considerable interest. Up to the 1930’s, the people had made do with near derelict houses long since abandoned by the Turks and inadequate provisions, notably water. The arrival of a large group of professionals from Athens turned things around and, despite the rest of Crete coming under German occupation during the War, a close-knit community developed on Spinalonga. Soon after the War, effective treatments for leprosy were discovered and the island’s inhabitants were able to be repatriated, including Maria.

The story of Anna’s rejection of the handsome war hero from Plaka for the son of the local rich landowner and the tragic outcome of her passionate affair with his wayward brother was rather stereotypical. Maria married for love and later adopted Sofia, who was Anna’s daughter but whose paternity was doubtful. It was the teenage Sofia’s rejection of her adoptive parents that led to overwhelming guilt in later life and unwillingness to talk about her history. Alexis comes to understand her mother and, showing something of her character, leaves the controlling Ed.


I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

There were divided opinions in the group about the book I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti. No-one said that they really loved the story, though that was rather difficult considering the subject. This was about an Italian village named Acqua Traverse, whose inhabitants were involved in a kidnapping. It is told from the point of view of Michele Amitrano, the nine-year old son of one of the villagers, as written when he was an adult. The writing has an almost breathless air to it, with mostly short sentences, perhaps imitating the speech of a young child. Acqua Traverse was set in wheat-growing country and the height of the growing wheat is often referred to in the story, which may be an allusion to how the events appear to Michele.

The story is set in the summer of 1978, which was particularly hot and stifling. Adults spent most of each day indoors with the blinds drawn which left the children, who seemed immune to the heat, to play around unsupervised. The narrator was part of this group, neither the leader nor the youngest. As is often the case with children, his five-year old sister Maria was always wanting to become involved. The eldest of the gang, at age 12, was a boy known as Skull, who was strong for his age but none too bright and with a nasty streak. He had an older brother named Felice, who was well on his way to a life of crime.

At the start of the book, the children decide to venture beyond the confines of the village. They have a race up a hill in a wheatfield and come across a dilapidated building at the top. Maria tries to follow and causes Michele to come last, for which he is expected to pay a forfeit. In so doing, he discovers a child in a covered hole whom he assumes to be dead. He doesn’t tell anyone about his discovery, but goes there alone the next day and finds that the child, whose name is Filippo, is alive but in a very bad way. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Filippo has been kidnapped and the villagers are involved.

Michele begins to feel himself responsible for Filippo’s welfare who is being watched over from time to time by the sadistic Felice. When Felice discovers Michele with Filippo, the villagers realise that they are in danger of discovery. They meet in Michele’s father’s house and the meetings, which involve a lot of shouting, include an unpleasant old man whom Michele later discovers is a crook from Rome named Sergio Materia. Also attending was Avvocato Emilio Scardaccione, a local landowner and lawyer in Rome. Michele’s father tells him not to see Filippo again on danger of being shot, but Michele had made a promise to help Filippo. He then discovers that Materia wants Filippo killed so he sets off to rescue him.

This latter part of the book is written in a very exciting way, but the ending is confusing. This may be because the author wished to highlight how events would have appeared to a 9-year old, but the narrator was still the adult Michele. The group felt that the lack of reasons behind the kidnapping of Filippo and why the villagers and others were involved, not to mention the consequences of the events, was rather unsatisfactory.

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