It’s a real pleasure today to join the blog tour and share my review of Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop, published on 30th May by Headline Review and now available in hardcover, and as both an ebook and audiobook. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invitation to join the tour, and to the publishers for both my advance paperback copy and my reading e-copy (provided through netgalley).
Like so many others, my introduction to Victoria Hislop’s writing was through The Island, read and enjoyed so long ago that I can’t find a review to link to: but, having had the pleasure of attending the ten year anniversary party, I do have a much-prized signed hardback copy in pride of place on my shelves. I’m surprised I can’t find any other reviews of her books (by me) here on Being Anne, because I remember particularly enjoying The Thread, perhaps my favourite of her more recent books: but you will find a lovely guest review here, by Julie Ryan, of Cartes Postales from Greece.
Those Who Are Loved is set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Greece in World War II, the subsequent civil war and a military dictatorship, all of which left deep scars.
Athens 1941. After decades of political uncertainty, Greece is polarised between Right- and Left-wing views when the Germans invade. Fifteen-year-old Themis comes from a family divided by these political differences. The Nazi occupation deepens the fault-lines between those she loves just as it reduces Greece to destitution. She watches friends die in the ensuing famine and is moved to commit acts of resistance.
In the civil war that follows the end of the occupation, Themis joins the Communist army, where she experiences the extremes of love and hatred and the paradoxes presented by a war in which Greek fights Greek.
Eventually imprisoned on the infamous islands of exile, Makronisos and then Trikeri, Themis encounters another prisoner whose life will entwine with her own in ways neither can foresee. And finds she must weigh her principles against her desire to escape and live. As she looks back on her life, Themis realises how tightly the personal and political can become entangled. While some wounds heal, others deepen.
This powerful new novel from Number One bestseller Victoria Hislop sheds light on the complexity and trauma of Greece’s past and weaves it into the epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live an extraordinary life.
Despite my many holiday visits back in the 70s, my knowledge of recent Greek history and the immense trials and tribulations of its citizens through the Second World War and beyond has always been lamentably sketchy. This book – following Themis’ personal story set against an exceptionally vivid backdrop of recent history – most certainly put the record straight, and revealed a catalogue of pain and suffering that has, until now, remained largely unseen.
The research behind the telling of this story in such stark recreated detail must have been immense – and much of that detail is quite thoroughly shocking, a proud people escaping the yoke of Nazi oppression only to move into an internal struggle with different political forces fighting for supremacy, its people experiencing the most horrendous privation and unspeakable cruelty.
It’s a sweeping and thoroughly shocking backdrop, drawn in very large scale and cinematic detail – but what gives particular strength to this book is the way it also manages to be a very moving story on a far smaller scale, focusing on a family with its competing passions and allegiances and the events that befall them. It’s essentially Themis’ own story, a lifetime’s experiences with a particular emphasis on her experience of imprisonment after she chooses to join the communist cause, having become a freedom fighter, but then following her through the aftermath into her later life.
It’s those experiences during her imprisonment that will stay with me the longest – the fleeting moments of joy, the appalling cruelty she suffers, her absolute determination to be true to a cause she believes in with absolute disregard for her own comfort and survival. While the character development is quite excellent, I think the author’s great strength is in the describing of moments – small scenes that it’s impossible to look away from or ever forget.
I also particularly loved the way she took us into the heart of Themis’ family and the complexities of the different characters – and the impact of the changing political situation on its individuals and their relationships, together with its ongoing legacy.
Did I enjoy it? “Enjoy” might be the wrong word, as it’s a harrowing read – but a totally unforgettable one. If I do have criticism, I did think that the book’s opening and ending, providing the framework for Themis’ story, might not have been entirely necessary: and I did think the story slowed a little as it moved into the later stages of her life, however necessary to complete the history and draw things to a satisfying conclusion.
But the writing is absolutely superb – easy reading in so many ways, but so very challenging in its subject matter, certainly not flinching in its focus on scenes and issues that can’t fail to move the reader. It left me with an immense sense of shame that the Greece I’d always thought of as ancient history, sunshine, beaches and happy people had such a painful recent history – and immense respect for the author for so effectively laying it bare. Very highly recommended.
About the author
Inspired by a visit to Spinalonga, the abandoned Greek leprosy colony, Victoria Hislop wrote The Island in 2005. It became an international bestseller and a 26-part Greek TV series. She was named Newcomer of the Year at the British Book Awards and is now an ambassador for Lepra. The Island has sold over 1.2million copies in the UK and more than 5 million worldwide.
Her affection for the Mediterranean then took her to Spain, which inspired her second bestseller The Return, and she returned to Greece to tell the turbulent tale of Thessaloniki in The Thread, shortlisted for a British Book Award and confirming her reputation as an inspirational storyteller. It was followed by her much-admired Greece-set short story collection, The Last Dance and Other Stories.
The Sunrise, a Sunday Times Number One bestseller about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, was published to widespread acclaim in 2014. Victoria’s most recent book, Cartes Postales from Greece was a Sunday Times Number One bestseller and one of the Top Ten biggest selling paperbacks of 2017. Her novels have sold 10 million copies worldwide.