Sunday, 16 April 2017

Emma's Review: Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

'The story started at dawn on the fourteenth of September, 1943 . . .'

All her life, London-born Angelika has been intrigued by her mother's secret past. Now planning her wedding, she feels she must visit the remote Crete village her mother grew up in.

Angie's estranged elderly grandmother, Maria, is dying. She welcomes Angie with open arms - it's time to unburden herself, and tell the story she'll otherwise take to her grave.

It's the story of the Nazi occupation of Crete during the Second World War, of horror, of courage and of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. And it's the story of bitter secrets that broke a family apart, and of three enchanting women who come together to heal wounds that have damaged two generations.

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Island of Secrets, the d├ębut novel from Patricia Wilson, certainly lived up to its title as this is an incredibly well told story of one family's struggle for many years to bury the events of the past and keep them hidden all within the confines of a small island. I love historical fiction and even more so when it has the time slip element and this was here in abundance in a book that I could hardly bear to leave out of my hands until I had read to the very last word.

Patricia Wilson has brought to light an event in the history of Crete that I had never heard of and I'm sure many others would not have either. Yet for the residents of Crete and in particular the small rural villages where the atrocities took place this awful period will never be forgotten and though they say time is a great healer I don't think it is at all easy to come to terms with something so brutal and horrific or to forgive those who committed such unspeakable horrors.

Island of Secrets was a brilliant book that left me surprised that this was the author's first book so deft was Patricia at telling the story in a way that drew you in from the opening chapter and made you want to keep rapidly turning the pages to discover all the answers and see how everything all joined up. The tension increased chapter by chapter and even in the final few pages you never knew what was around the corner, I literally couldn't put the book down and was disgusted when I had to do so in order as the outside world was calling. It was very difficult to leave Angie, Poppy and Maria behind even for an hour or two so caught up was I in their story that I rushed to get things done in order to return to the island and read on. This was a beautifully crafted novel where the author put everything into it's writing to produce a simply stunning read that will stay in your head for days and you will struggle to forget everything you have read.

The story focuses on three very very strong, courageous, brave and determined women who sacrifice everything in the name of family. They take you on a journey that is absorbing, haunting, tense and powerful and bring alive a story of the German occupation of Crete during the war which leads to so much heartbreak and many secrets whose affects are felt for several generations. It's clear right from the beginning Patricia Wilson put a lot of time and effort into her research and having lived on the island she was well placed to tell this story. It  really came across that she wanted to bring a point in history alive and to the forefront of reader's minds. What struck me given so many books in the historical fiction genre have been written over the years about World War Two is that a new element has been written about and how the war touched every corner of the world no matter how large or small the place may have been. I felt I had really travelled back in time and I was there alongside each of the characters at various pints as they battle through many struggles and hardships but all in the name of love and unity.

Angie, the youngest of the women featured in the story, is on a journey to discover the truth regrading her family. She is just about to marry her beloved Nick but feels there are lots of unresolved questions she so desperately wants the answers to. What exactly happened to her father? Who are the relatives she has never met or spoken to and why? Why did her mother Poppy leave Crete forty years ago never to return or to interact with her family more or less pretending they never existed? What could have caused such an upheaval and estrangement from the ones you love? I asked myself this question so many times as I was reading and although we got some answers as the story developed I never could quite put my finger on the final reasons. What could have been so catastrophic to make someone endure so much loss and hurt for long without some form of reconciliation?

Angie travels to Crete and the small village of Amiras in search of answers and in doing so hopes to find out more about her heritage and the father she never knew even though Poppy still holds him in such high regard. Angie is doing all this against her mothers wishes. Poppy refuses to come with her or even make phone contact with her mother and close family members. To be honest I thought Poppy was quite selfish, that is until the final truth emerged. Family is so so important and vital to one's being that how could you suffer forty years without any contact treating them as if they were all dead? Why couldn't she provide any sort of answers to Angie instead becoming ill and cut off when ever the subject was broached. I felt she should have been there alongside Angie as she travelled to Crete and again what ever the reason for her opinions and viewpoints I hoped it was worth her apparent lack of care and interest. The big reveal regarding Poppy and her separation from her family could have been such a let down or far too easy to guess but thanks to the astonishing writing of the author none of this came to pass. It was all so believable and realistic but just utterly utterly heartbreaking. When Angie reaches her grandmother Maria's house even though she has never met her before she is welcomed into the arms of the family. Although not all family members and village residents want Angie here stirring up memories of Poppy because in doing so past events will come bubbling up to the surface - events which many have spent years pushing firmly deep down to the recess of their minds.

Bit by bit Maria begins to tell her own story and although it is not immediately connected to that of Poppy's it certainly needed to be told. I could sense Angie's increasing worries that Maria would never get to the point and explain what happened to make Poppy flee and to be honest I felt the same given how Maria felt her time to leave was near. If Maria had not been able to tell her story this book would not have been the exceptional read that it was. It couldn't have been left out at all as it only helped to build the bigger picture and explain all the family connections and feuds.Vendettas can last for so long and why and how major events in the past certainly shape the people we are today. As Maria's story unfolds I quickly became oblivious to everything around me and it only mattered that I kept rapidly turning the pages so tense and powerful and heart wrenching was the writing. A quiet September morning in Amiras disrupted by the arrival of the Germans changed the lives of its residents forever.

The scenes that followed were incredibly hard to read but I am glad that the author spared no details because these events did happen and shouldn't be trivialised in any way. These people were witness to an almost unspeakable event that was conducted with such malice and intent and it is horrific that such a thing happened. I loved reading Maria's story and the further it developed it demonstrated her tenacity and strength when everything around her was falling to pieces yet the love of a mother and family were what got her through although she is still haunted by it right up to the present day. As Angie heard Maria's story I felt she changed too but in a good way. She realised although there was no father figure in her life growing up her mother Poppy did the very best she could for her at all times and the way she acts now and the distance between Poppy and her family is there for a reason. She begins to question has she gone too far stirring up old memories? But once one opens the flood gates one must let everything spill forth until some sort of resolution and acceptance can be found.

Often in books with a dual time frame one storyline or the other can suffer or be weaker than the other but in the Island of Secrets both were as equally strong and as riveting. Yes when we left Maria's story in 1943 I was reluctant to return to the present and vice versa but that is only because I was so captivated and enthralled by everything that I was reading. As Angie uncovers the mysteries of the past,the people she meets in modern day Amiras each have their own part to play and story to tell. They are all connected in some way to what happened to Poppy and not one character can be under estimated and those that make brief appearances or seem to be inconsequential well don't under estimate them.

I will admit there were numerous characters to keep track of and to determine how they all connect to Maria and Poppy's family and I became slightly confused but I suppose that was partly because I was reading so fast so eager was I just like Angie to see the secrets exposed and deeply held resentment and hurt dissipate. The shocks and revelations kept coming the nearer we got to Angie's wedding to Nick and the tension increased a gear. The reader never knew what awaited them on the next page and I was shocked by the final revelation when the truth finally became apparent.

Patricia Wilson deserves great praise for weaving such a fascinating, gripping story that left me gasping in horror at times with tears in my eyes but also a deep respect for the characters and their story. I'm sorry I read it so quickly because I know now I will never experience that feeling of reading such a wonderful book as this was for the first time again. Island of Secrets is a moving, emotional, engrossing story that was written with such intensity and honesty and I loved every minute of it. It's already one of my books of 2017 and I am so glad to have discovered the writing of Patricia Wilson and hope there is many more books to come in the future if they are anything of this calibre I really can't wait.

Many thanks to Emily Burns from Bonnier Zaffre for sending me a copy of Island of Secrets to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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