by Victoria Hislop
More famously known for her first novel, The Island, Victoria Hislop, wife of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, is a writer whose work I’ve only recently tasted.
They say you should not judge a book by its cover but I just can’t help it. With repeated romance/beach motifs adorning her books I’m afraid I assumed that the books wouldn’t even qualify as ‘intelligent trash’. However a trip to Greece this summer required something ‘light’ so I took and devoured ‘The Sunrise’, published this year.
Far from being ‘low brow’ this novel thoroughly and intriguingly traces the tumultuous political background to the Turkish invasion of Famagusta, Cyprus after the military coup by the Greek Cypriots in 1974. This political drama provides a backdrop to the front-stage action set in the Mediterranean’s most glamorous resort dubbed ‘the millionaire’s playground’ on an island where Greeks and Turks have, until now, worked harmoniously alongside one another. For a full review, see Susan Elkin’s article in The Independent.
Hislop begins her account with descriptions of Famagusta, this ‘most important port in Cyprus’ where ‘residents, workers and visitors alike enjoyed almost immeasurable contentment.’ It is along the sea-front of ultra modern hotels that ‘The Sunrise’ is being built. ‘Fifteen stories taller than the rest’ with ‘imposing gates’ and ‘high railings’ I’m reminded of the Tower of Babel and further biblical echoes come to mind as the first impressions of the hotel are described.
The first thing that should impress was its size. A man would be reminded of a football pitch. A woman would think of a beautiful lake. Both would notice the impossible gleam of the marble floor and experience what it might be like to walk on water.
The man behind this ‘vision’ is Savvas Papacosta, married to the impossibly beautiful and intelligent Aphrodite whose enviable glamour is, by the end of the novel, stripped from her along with her money, her jewellery, her home and her dignity. The only seemingly fulfilling relationship in Aphrodite’s life with her husband’s colleague, Markos, ends in abandonment, theft and betrayal of the most negligent kind when he witnesses her rape by a Turkish soldier but passes by on the other side.
Two families, one Greek (the Georgious) and one Turkish Cypriot (the Ozkans), know a contentment never experienced by the nakedly ambitious Papacostas. ‘Instinct told them that extravagance did not equate with happiness’. They laugh and enjoy friendship ‘bemused rather than jealous’ of the opulence by which they are surrounded. They seem to have unconsciously grasped the biblical exhortation to ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.’ They do not seek the limelight. Indeed there is none to seek when they become the only two families left on the island after the Turkish retaliation.
Living in hiding there is no audience for their lives in real terms but as readers we witness their daily struggles, courage, decision-making and emotional turmoil. The two matriarchal figures of these families exemplify simple hard work, passionate love and commitment to their sons and daughters and the ability to overcome prejudice and boundaries to friendship in the face of extreme danger.
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy.’ So much of this novel is redolent of Christian truth. By the end of the story, the coastline of Famagusta is littered with the ‘shells’ of deserted, unused hotels with outdoor building works frozen in time. How quickly something man made can be destroyed. How fragile money, power and influence turn out to be.
The book has been described as a tender and well researched treatment of ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’. It is just that and sparked far more reflection that I would have anticipated from a holiday read. My son’s English Teacher was right when she said at a recent address to parents that we should not be ‘snooty’ about our children’s reading choices. I need to take her advice in my own reading!