The Jasmine Isle is an epic tale of lost love and a beautiful story of the love between sisters, set in Greece at the beginning of the 20th century. Straddling the old world and the new, Ioanna Karystiani tells the story of the Saltaferos family. Minna is a matriarch, a woman who runs the lives of her daughters Orsa and Mosca. Orsa, the elder of the two, is beautiful and in love with Spyros Maltambes, but Minna makes her marry another man. Orsa's husband is a good man who cares for his lovely wife, but Orsa cannot help but pine for Spyros, who marries the person Orsa loves most in the world save for himself.
Karystiani's style is dream-like and impressionistic. Sometimes I had to reread passages to follow her loose-woven paragraphs and storytelling but I fell under her spell nonetheless. She creates vivid characters and palpable tension between them as time goes on and the family grows and changes. Set on a seafaring island, death is a constant presence in the lives of the Saltaferos family and indeed of every family in their orbit. The men are all sailors, traveling the world and risking their lives while the women wait and worry. They bring back treasures from around the globe but the real treasure- their love- seems to elude even the most well-meaning among them. Or at least that's how it seems.
The Jasmine Isle is an elusive novel, the characters slipping away from each other and from us, never quite in our grasp. I don't mean this in a bad way, just that Karystiani transmits the melancholy and isolation they feel as wars and love and passion and disappointment wash over each one in his or her turn. Poor Orsa, and poor Mosca too, and even poor Minna, as frustrated and bitter as the rest. The men don't fare much better. So it's a beautiful novel but a sad one, but one I'd recommend to literary fiction readers, about staying behind in more ways than one.
Karystiani has a new book out, Back to Delphi, which I hope to read soon.
This is my sixth book for the 2013 Europa Challenge.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.