Book review: The Sunrise

the sunrise by victoria hislop 21-8-14I’m a big fan of Victoria Hislop’s previous three novels, The Thread, The Return, and The Island so was expecting a lot from the new one, The Sunrise. I was a little disappointed and it’s difficult to pin down why. The Cyprus setting is great, the historical setting is stirring, the characters… I didn’t connect as well with them as I did with Alexis and Eleni in The Island. Finally, I decided that the difference between The Sunrise and the Hislop’s earlier books is that it wears its history a little too heavily. That said, it is a fascinating period and one I knew little about, except a memory of a distant cousin who lived near Kyrenia at the time. He and his family were forced to flee their house, empty-handed, running across open countryside towards a cave, dodging bullets being fired from an airplane

The Sunrise tells the story of three families in Famagusta from the sunny days of 1972 when tourism brings riches to Cyprus, to 1974 when a Greek coup forces the island into chaos. Greek Cypriots flee in one direction, Turkish Cypriots flee in the other, and the Turkish army invades to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority. The city of Famagusta empties as people run for their lives. Today, 40 years later, the city is still empty. This is the setting for Hislop’s novel.

Two of the families in The Sunrise – the Georgious and the Ozkans – remain behind in Famagusta, hiding, scavenging for food, keeping silent to avoid capture. One is Greek Cypriot, the other Turkish Cypriot. Initially suspicious of everyone, the families are brought together by the two mothers and encouraged to support each other. This is a story of survival on the edge of war, of starvation, ingenuity, bravery and fear. Sons disappear, the city is bombed, soldiers patrol the streets, and a baby is born. The third family – the Papacostas, owners of the sparkling new hotel The Sunrise – flee to their apartment in Nicosia, locking up their stronghold hotel and leaving valuables in its safe, but taking the danger and emotional attachments with them.

Though the book at times drifts towards impersonal reportage and can feel a little like reading a history book or newspaper report, the accuracy of the complicated political and social situation is clearly explained. The island is heft in two and its population uprooted with possessions, without warning. They are attacked, raped, killed, simply for being ‘the other kind’. Finally they settle into North and South, either side of the east-west dividing line.

[photo: Angus Muir]

[photo: Angus Muir]

Victoria Hislop [above] always writes about places she knows well and that knowledge shines off the page in every sound, smell and touch she conjures up. She was not able to go to Famagusta, the city is still closed off, and had to be content with looking through the wire fence. In The Sunrise she has tackled a hugely complex political and emotional subject. For me, the story took off in 1974 once the Georgious and Ozkans were trapped in the city and fighting to survive. I found Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta less sympathetic, I’m afraid, perhaps because the story starts in 1972 when they develop their luxury hotel, two years before the Cypriot coup takes place. Perhaps that’s just me, impatient for the action to start.

For Victoria Hislop’s website, click here.
Watch this TED talk on You Tube in which Victoria Hislop talks about how courage inspires her writing. The Sunrise is set in Famagusta during the Cypriot coup.
Victoria Hislop re-visits Famagusta, in this article for the Daily Telegraph.
‘The Sunrise’ by Victoria Hislop [UK: Headline Review, from September 25, 2014]

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