Richard and Judy Review Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop
" If you’ve never been to Greece, by the time you’ve finished this book you’ll be packing your bags and booking a flight to Athens."
This book is a love affair – with Greece: its islands, sun-drenched olive groves, lazy fishing villages, people moving in rhythm with the tides and seasons, and above all, a story of love and loss. If you’ve never been to Greece, by the time you’ve finished this book you’ll be packing your bags and booking a flight to Athens.
Victoria Hislop has form for this, of course. Greece beguiled her many years ago and her novels are a hymn of passion to the country. Cartes Postales is no exception. But the difference between this book and Hislop’s previous offerings is that it is not, in the strictest sense, a novel; it is more a series of short stories.
They’re illustrated, too. Subtle yet sumptuous photos of Greek scenes adorn each chapter, like the eponymous postcards of the book’s title. These work well; they help underline a sense of otherness, and another country.
Each chapter is, essentially, a Greek fable or even a myth. The underlying theme is of darkness in paradise; the poisoned apple that brings ruin and dismay after one luscious bite. The tales are like mini-legends, warnings of the price that must ultimately be paid for the sins of greed, lust, and dishonesty.
So for example we have the man trapped in a dead marriage to the childhood sweetheart who becomes a bitter, disillusioned old crone. He unearths an ancient statue of Aphrodite and its utter beauty so devastates his senses that he suffers a fatal heart attack.
"Rich with a sense of place, bursting with insight into the human condition, Cartes Postales is a moving, poignant series of stories and a luscious depiction of Greece itself. "
Richard is right, this is more a collection of short stories than a conventional novel but they are woven together by a delicate thread in the form of Anthony and Ellie and their strange, at-one-remove relationship.
Anthony is an art historian who has been betrayed by the love of his life. Heartbroken, he runs away to Greece but he is unable to entirely break off the relationship. He sends a series of postcards to his ex-lover – but they go to the wrong address.
Ellie is intrigued by the cryptic, scribbled messages and the beautiful photographic images that drop through her letterbox; cartes postales from a man she has never met. Gradually she becomes obsessed not only with him, but with the Greece he so vividly describes; bright skies, blue seas, alluring, beckoning images. But after six months, the postcards suddenly stop arriving. Bereft, Ellie decides she must go and see this beautiful country for herself.
Then, just before she leaves, a notebook arrives. Again, Anthony has sent it to the wrong address. It is full of stories of his odyssey through Greece; fascinating vignettes of life, love and death. Ellie decides she must track the writer down and return his book to him.
Rich with a sense of place, bursting with insight into the human condition, Cartes Postales is a moving, poignant series of stories and a luscious depiction of Greece itself. Beautifully written, it is the easiest of reads; you can dip in and out of this book at will and never lose the thread. Enjoy.
Were there always going to be illustrations in this book, or did the idea for that come as you were writing it?
I have always taken a huge number of photos when doing research for my books set in Greece and for some time have wished that I could share these with the reader. But this idea was just the starting point.
What then began to intrigue me was whether a moment of inspiration for a story could be captured at the very same time as a photograph was being taken. I didn’t want to commission a photographer to try to illustrate something after I had written it. That would have been a more conventional approach and in many ways not nearly as interesting and spontaneous for me.
I found a photographer, Alexandros Kakolyris, who was happy to try this slightly experimental approach – and who had an interest in storytelling as I do. The photographs were an integral part of the concept of this book, right from the beginning, and the story of Anthony, who travels and sends postcards, grew very naturally out of this. Even the very first story in the book, ‘The Boy in the Silvery Suit’, illustrates how the idea works. We were sitting in a square in Nafplio, at dusk, and suddenly a boy in a pale grey suit ran in front of us. It was surreal – a very unreal moment and a very unusual image. He looked like a ghost. In that moment the first story was born and the rest of the book followed. We knew that this way of combining words and pictures was going to result in something different.
At what point in your life did you realise you had fallen in love with Greece? And why do you think it happened?
It was love at first sight for me. My first visit was at the age of seventeen (in 1976). Until then, our family holidays had been spent in Kent or Sussex, swimming in the chilly English Channel, eating pork pies and sheltering behind canvas windbreaks. To swim in the Aegean for the first time was life changing (I went to the island of Paros with my mother and sister) – the blue of the sky, the warm, clear sea, the fine pale sand . . . Imagine the first tastes of watermelon, feta cheese, sweet baklava (you couldn’t get any of those in an English supermarket back then). I loved everything about it – and the heat too. And from that year on, I have visited Greece once, twice and, nowadays, countless times each year.
Postcard or tweet from now on?!
I’ll definitely continue with both, but I am sure that Twitter will disappear sooner or later – and the postcard never will. And isn’t it amazing to come across an old postcard that you received a few decades ago and remember the moment it came and who sent it?
I have a collection of my grandmother’s postcards – an album that contains hundreds of postcards dating from 1906. It’s one of my most treasured possessions and reminds me how rich and important postcards are as a historical record – pictures of places, the way people expressed themselves, and even their handwriting – these things and so much more are captured there.
We won’t be looking at Twitter archives in a hundred years’ time – I am sure of that – but we will still be looking at postcards from the past . . .
Perhaps we’re being a little fanciful, but over the years with our book club we sometimes think we can detect what an author’s mood was as they were writing their novel. We sense that you took an especially intense pleasure and satisfaction as you wrote Cartes Postales from Greece. Yes?
Yes! You guess right. Cartes Postales involved extensive travel all around Greece – which was very rewarding for me (I can’t think of a nicer way to spend time than being on the move and going to new towns and villages almost every day). I went to so many out-of-the-way places and learned so many new things about the culture and tradition of a country that I already knew well but it deepened my understanding. And it was exciting to find that every place we visited gave me some kind of inspiration.
I was writing the story in the car as we went along (the photographer was happy to do all the driving), and all the ideas came very easily and very fast. I loved every minute of the creative process and was thrilled with the visual result too. I love the photographs, I have favourites, but I like them all and remember the moment they were taken and how inspiration was sparked.
- Discuss the structure that Hislop uses to tell her story.
- Do you think the inclusion of photographs in a work of fiction changes your reading experience?
- How do we learn about A’s character through the notebook?
- Greece almost becomes a character in this book. How much does the evocation of place in a novel add to your enjoyment of a book?