Victoria Hislop’s latest novel set in Greece shows a side of the country’s recent past that you’ll never see in the tourist brochures

Words Claire Smith          

Since she fell in love with Greece as a teenager, Victoria Hislop has had an enduring fascination with its history and its people. And ever since her 2005 debut novel The Island became a runaway bestseller, readers throughout the world have been sharing in her love affair with the country.

Her latest novel, Those Who Are Loved, delves into the dark and painful history of the Greek civil war of 1946-9, in which communist rebels took on government forces. The story is told through the eyes of Themis Stravidis, who in her old age decides to tell her grandchildren the story of her life.

“I wanted to write about the civil war, but you can’t really do that without talking about what led up to it and what happened afterwards. The twentieth-century history of Greece isn’t so well known: people are a lot more familiar with ancient Greece than with its more recent history.”

Hislop begins by describing the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s through the eyes of a child. With one brother a communist and the other a fascist, Themis grows up in a family torn apart by ideological differences. “The civil war really did divide families, so this is a way to see it through a microcosm,” she says.

During the turbulent period after the Nazi occupation of Greece, Themis becomes a fighter herself, and ends up on the notorious prison island of Makronisos.

Hislop relished creating a story from the point of view of a grandmother. “A lot of people look at the elderly and just see faded, shrunken people with silver hair, but they represent extraordinary history.

“Themis has lived through times of deprivation so she doesn’t have a lot of possessions, but she has a world of experience to share – which is more valuable in many ways.”

Although she marries and has children, this is not really a love story.  “It’s a different kind of love really. There’s the love of mothers for children, grandmothers for grandchildren, different types of love between blood relatives and friends”

Hislop, whose husband Ian is the editor of Private Eye, says writing about twentieth century European history inevitably brings parallels with what is happening in politics today. “Generally I just want things to run smoothly and don’t get too caught up in it – but it is hard not to right now.”

As someone who has been immersed in Mediterranean culture and history for most of her life, the UK’s decision to leave Europe took her by surprise.

“It has been such a shock since that day three years ago when the results came in. I was absolutely devastated by it.

“Since then it’s almost worse. At least at the time it was a decision made democratically. Now they are talking about leaving without a deal. There’s absolutely nothing good for me about Brexit.

“Europe was all about bringing peace and bringing people together, and has been such a good thing.”

While in Edinburgh for her Book Festival event, Hislop plans to see lots of comedy, as well as some music events at the Usher Hall.

“I’ve been to the Book Festival twice before and I’m really looking forward to going again. My son Will will be performing with the sketch group Giants, so I’ll be running across town to the Pleasance to see him. I don’t know if he’ll come to see me, but it’s lovely that we are both doing something in Edinburgh.

“I’ll go to see as much comedy as I can pack in. Ian will come up if the Private Eye schedule allows. In comedy we tend to like the same things.

“What is always so frustrating in Edinburgh is there’s so much going on. You have the choice of fifty things in any one hour.”

WHERE & WHEN

Victoria Hislop New York Times Main Theatre, 19 August, 3.15pm, from £12. edbookfest.co.uk

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