Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

This was one of several books on my 20 Books of Summer list this year that I didn’t have time to read before the September deadline, but if I’d know how much I was going to love it I would have made it a priority. It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year and probably the most moving.

The novel opens in Greece in 2016 and introduces us to an elderly woman called Themis, whose family have gathered in her Athens apartment to celebrate her birthday. Aware of how little the younger generations know about their country’s history, she decides to share her life story with her two favourite grandchildren, Nikos and Popi. It seems as though almost every book I pick up recently is set in multiple time periods and, to be honest, I’m getting a bit bored with that format, but in this case the framing story only forms the beginning and end of the book – the bulk of the novel is set in the past, which makes it easier to become fully immersed in the story Themis is telling.

And what a fascinating story it is, beginning in the 1930s and taking us through the Axis occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the rise of communism and the Civil War that followed, the political crisis that led to a military junta taking control of the country and then the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of a more democratic society, bringing us right up to the present day. As I probably knew even less about 20th century Greek history than Nikos and Popi at the start of the novel, I found that I was learning a lot from the book, as well as being gripped by the personal stories of Themis and her family.

After their father leaves for America and their mother suffers a nervous breakdown, Themis and her three siblings are raised by their beloved grandmother. As they each grow up to hold different political opinions, a heated discussion takes place every evening when the family sit down around their large mahogany dining table. Themis and her brother Panos want to free Greece from German occupation and later, as their views move further to the left, they both decide to join the Communist army. Meanwhile, her eldest brother Thanasis and sister Margarita are much more right wing, believing that Nazi Germany is Greece’s friend and that the Communists are the dangerous ones.

One of the things I liked about the novel is that, although we naturally find ourselves siding with Themis as the main protagonist, the whole subject of political division and difference is treated with balance and sensitivity. We see that Thanasis and Margarita, despite standing for everything Themis dislikes, do still have some good qualities, while Panos and Themis find themselves doing some questionable things in the name of their own beliefs. The message I took away from the book is that violence, destruction and killing can never be justified, no matter how much someone may try to tell themselves they’re doing it for the right reasons.

I was struck by this quote which I think feels very relevant to today’s world as well as to 1940s Athens:

People seemed to be losing their humanity. The schism that existed between left and right had been allowed to widen, the polarisation to deepen, and now the city was paying the consequences.

Those Who Are Loved is a powerful, emotional story. So far the only other Victoria Hislop book I’ve read is The Sunrise, which I enjoyed, but found quite uneven. This one is a much stronger book, in my opinion, and held my interest from beginning to end. I do have a copy of The Thread, which will be the next one I read and also set in 20th century Greece.

Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

The Sunrise This is Victoria Hislop’s fourth novel but the first one I’ve read. She has previously written about the Greek leper colony on the island of Spinalonga (The Island), the Spanish Civil War (The Return), and the history of the Greek city of Thessaloniki (The Thread), all of which sound interesting to me as I know nothing about any of those subjects! Like the three books I’ve just mentioned, in The Sunrise, Hislop takes a time and place that many people, including myself, will be unfamiliar with and weaves a story around it.

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta in Cyprus is a thriving holiday resort, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. The beach is lined with luxury hotels, the most luxurious and expensive of them all being The Sunrise, which has just opened its doors for the first time. For the hotel’s owner, Savvas Papacosta, these are exciting times; his dream of becoming the most successful hotelier in Famagusta is moving one step closer to reality.

Within two years, everything changes. Unknown to the tourists as they enjoy the sun, sea and sand, a Greek military coup has led to Turkey invading the northern part of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots. When the army approaches Famagusta, frightened guests evacuate the hotels and people flee their homes, among them Savvas and his glamorous wife, Aphroditi. But as Turkish soldiers surround the abandoned city, two families remain hidden inside their apartments. One family, the Georgious, are Greek Cypriots, and the other, the Özkans, are Turkish Cypriots. We follow the stories of both of these families, as well as the Papacostas, and see how each character copes with what has happened to their city.

I did enjoy The Sunrise but I thought it felt a bit uneven; not much happened in the first half of the book and a lot of time was spent introducing the characters, setting the scene and describing the interior of the new hotel. With hindsight, I can see that maybe this was necessary, so that we could appreciate the extent to which the lives of these characters were disrupted and destroyed by the coming conflict, but I still found myself getting impatient and wanting to get into the story! I loved the second half of the novel, though. The descriptions of the abandoned city – houses with beds still unmade and food still on the tables, waiting in vain for their owners to return – are extremely vivid and there are images from the book that have stayed in my mind several days after finishing it.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in the story but I thought they were an interesting selection of people and I could certainly sympathise with the situations in which they found themselves. While there are one or two characters in the novel who are motivated by greed and self-interest, it was good to see people of different backgrounds and political beliefs working together, overcoming their differences and discovering that their ‘enemies’ are human beings just like themselves.

Towards the end of the book there are too many coincidences and things are wrapped up too neatly for my liking, but overall I found The Sunrise a fascinating read. I have never been to Cyprus and as I said at the start of this post, I know very little about its history (apart from the 15th century civil war, which I read about in Dorothy Dunnett’s Race of Scorpions) so I’m pleased to have had an opportunity to learn about Famagusta’s tragic past. What makes the story even more poignant is that the district of Varosha, where The Sunrise is set, remains a ghost town even today, untouched and uninhabited for four decades.

Thanks to Bookbridgr for my copy of The Sunrise.