Black Swan | 2020 (25 June) | 368p | Bought copy | Buy the book
It is 1957 and Iris Bailey, a talented amateur artist, is so bored of her life in Hemel Hempstead, living with her parents, working in the typing pool (where the male bosses grade the new girls’ looks out of ten) and being courted by dependable, reasonable Peter. Escape comes from an unlikely source. An old contact, Nell, a wealthy American socialite, asks Iris to come to Havana with her to draw at the wedding of her father, a famous Hollywood director.
It all seems too good to be true and, when Iris arrives in humid, overheated Cuba, she is overwhelmed – by the glamorous people at the wedding, their passions and secrets, the sights and sounds of this beautiful, vibrant, exotic place. It is indeed a playground for the very wealthy, and the poor are kept poor, but now there are the rumblings of rebellion from the hills. It’s a heady mix and Iris is intoxicated. But, as she sits and draws these charismatic, unusual people, she discovers that more than one of them has something to hide. And then they start to look at her with suspicion. That’s when she begins to feel afraid.
Islands of Secrets has broken new ground for me – it was my first audiobook! I’ve resisted the pull of audiobooks for some years but, in these days when it’s a little harder to get hold of new treebooks in shops and I seem to spend far too much time doing jigsaw puzzles, which, I have now discovered, are even more enjoyable if done while listening to a good book, the timing seems right. I picked my first audiobook well. I adore Rachel Rhys’ writing – it’s lyrical and beautiful – and the narrator Sara Alexander does it justice. Initially, as a novice, I found it a little difficult to keep track of who was who but I soon got used to it and I was thoroughly immersed in this atmospheric and engrossing tale.
As with all Rachel Rhys novels, the historical setting is gorgeously evoked, fully capturing what Havana must have been like for the very rich in the months leading up to the revolution. The reader can completely understand why Iris is so captivated by it and is so reluctant to return to her dull life in England (I did feel a little sorry for Hemel Hempstead – it faces an uphill struggle to compete with Havana). But even more beguiling than Havana is the wedding party that Iris is tasked with drawing. She is an outsider, almost paid help, but, although the novel is told from Iris’s perspective, we soon feel as the party does – that Iris is someone who draws out secrets, who can be confided in. She listens and finds herself caught up in their complicated, tangled relationships, and in their lives, especially in those of Nell and of the bride.
Island of Secrets is deliciously mysterious but it isn’t a mystery thriller. It’s a gorgeous literary novel of people and places, all beautifully created and evoked, transporting us across the ocean to the steamy, vibrant island of Cuba, which feels so alive and alters those who are fortunate to make it their playground. But, as this novel makes clear, there is a cost to pay. Island of Secrets is a wonderful novel, whether you read it or listen to it, and I heartily recommend it as I do anything that this fine author writes.