Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop, a splashy beach read turned war story

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta on Cyprus is a sun-lit paradise for wealthy vacationers. Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise opens with the feel of a splashy beach read.

The title comes from that of a 15-storey coastal hotel being constructed by Savvas Papacosta and his wife, Aphroditi, a classic power couple blessed with wealth, attractiveness, and perfect taste as they cater to their guests’ every whim. The “holidaymakers,” cocooned in their carefree life of R&R, remain ignorant of the tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

There’s a lot of exposition piled on, and the storyline in the beginning offers all the glamour and depth of a dishy soap opera. If you don’t mind broad-brush characters, though, it’s worth sticking around to see what happens. The setting and history are both fascinating, and a timeline and note serve to alert readers of what’s to come.

In 1974, following a coup d’état in favor of annexation by Greece, and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of Cyprus, Famagusta was abandoned. Today its former tourist quarter, called Varosha, is a decaying ghost town. Seen from the viewpoint of three families – the Papacostas, Georgious, and Özkans – The Sunrise takes readers step-by-step on a dramatic journey from Dynasty-style decadence to devastation.

It turns out the Papacostas’ marriage isn’t as solid as would seem, especially when Savvas’ suave right-hand man, Markos Georgiou, gets closer to Aphroditi. While lonely Aphroditi is a sympathetic figure, the novel’s most compelling aspect deals not with the ultra-rich but with the lives of ordinary citizens of Famagusta. In spite of their ethnic differences, Irini Georgiou, Markos’ mother, and hotel hairdresser Emine Özkan are firm friends, the matriarchs of their respective clans. Both fear they’ve lost sons to violence.

After the rest of the city’s residents flee in droves, only the Georgious and Özkans remain in Famagusta, in hiding from marauding soldiers. Together, they take up residence at the Sunrise, with its luxurious rooms and seemingly limitless food stores. It's a bit idealized; issues about electricity and sanitation aren't really addressed.

Their interactions, hesitant at first, become warmer as they bond over traditional meals and the shared tribulations of family life. On the outside, however, the situation is dire. The suspense never lets up, as danger is ever-present.

Despite the shaky start, The Sunrise is a fast-paced, haunting novel about ambition, betrayal, love for family and place, and the commonalities shared among people on both sides of an ethnic divide. There are many poignant moments of togetherness and others of somber reflection, all evoked with sensitivity. As one character observes toward the end, looking out on her once-beautiful home: “This was not the city she knew. It was a place she did not recognize. Its soul had gone.”

 The crumbling hotels of Famagusta, untouched and behind barbed wire since 1974.
"Famagusta2009 2" by Julienbzh35 - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

The Sunrise was published in July by Harper Paperbacks ($15.99, 339pp).  It was previously published by Headline in a different form (so says the title page) in the UK in 2014.  Read more about "The Ghost Town of Cyprus" in the Famagusta Gazette; the experiences reported in the article echo those depicted in the novel. See also a February article from Newsweek discussing the history of Famagusta and recent talks on possible reunification.

For another novel about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, see my review of Christy Lefteri's A Watermelon, a Fish, and a Bible.

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