Sasha Troyan's The Forgotten Island is a moody, tense sort of read, an altogether different kind of beach book, but one I enjoyed very much. This time around an island off the coast of Italy is the setting. Bella Terra catches not only the cool mistral winds of the north but the hot siroccos from Africa blow through as well adding to the atmosphere of the story. The winds bring an almost electrical charge with them putting pressure on the characters and how they act and react.
Eleven-year-old Helen narrates the story. Although American, her family has lived so long in France that when she reads the newspaper reports about the disappearance of a young American girl, she almost doesn't realize it's her sister they're describing, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Every summer Helen and her family return to Bella Terra, also known as the forgotten island.
"The water was so clean you could see from the plane right through to the white sand. My parents built a villa on the side of the hill. Painted ocher, the same color as the rock out of which it had been carved, the villa would have blended completely into the hillside had it not been for the brilliant purple bougainvillea covering its roof, the streams of amanti del sole and white gardenias that ran from the veranda to the stone wall at the bottom of the garden."
The island is an idyllic retreat for Helen and her older sister, Lea, full of natural wonders and eccentric neighbors. Helen is really still only a child, but Lea is on the cusp of young womanhood. She strains the barriers to see just how far she can go, how much she can get away with. Parental oversight is on the lax side as they are dealing with marital issues of their own, so Lea and Helen get into mischief as they explore the island. A nearby neighbor, Mr Peters, captures their attention with his paintings and bohemian manners. Added to the mix are the Ashtons, Prue and her husband, old friends of Helen's mother who come to stay at the villa.
Helen is not the most ideal observer of the events that will occur this particular summer, though in some ways she's privy to some happenings the adults aren't. Still, Helen doesn't yet have the sophistication to understand all the nuances of the snatches of conversations she overhears or the often bewildering interactions between the adults, including at times Lea. It makes for an interesting story, however; one filtered through the eyes of a child. The hot sirocco sweeps over the island for days on end leading up to a fateful afternoon on the beach when Lea wanders off never to be seen again.
The Forgotten Island is a slender novel full of secrets and sisterly antagonisms, betrayals and a loss of innocence never again to be regained. Troyan's prose is as lush and evocative as her descriptions of a very sensuous yet sinister Bella Terra. The ending isn't especially surprising but it's altogether satisfying.
Last time it was Ferris Beach in South Carolina, this time Bella Terra off the coast of Italy. Next I'm off to the village of Steerborough and seaside beyond in Suffolk. I may not get to a real beach this summer, but I'm making the rounds to a few imaginary ones.