Ioanna Karystiani is not an author you can approach lightly. Her prose is highly literary, dense, impressionistic - “Faulkner-esque” in a lot of ways. The Jasmine Isle is the second novel that I’ve read from her (the first being Swell) and if you love rich, poetic, impressionistic prose that doesn’t kid around then she is the author for you. There is a very tragic, dream-like feel to this story - which is simple enough - but it’s the manner of delivery that makes this a very difficult and challenging read.
The Jasmine Isle is a modern take on Greek tragedies, concerning a family on the isle of Andros that spans the course of fifty odd years, but is mostly set just prior to and during World War II. The story focuses on the desperate wife of a ship’s captain - Mina Saltaferou - and their two daughters. Mina is a domineering mother and her influence over her daughters is nothing short of tyrannical. While her husband - and the husbands of the other women in the story - are at sea for months, sometimes years, at a time, the women make due, finding solace in one another, sharing their joys, dreams, disappointments. The saddest story of them all is Mina’s eldest daughter, Orsa, who is essentially forced by her mother to marry a man she doesn’t love while she watches the man she truly loves marry another. Meanwhile, Mina’s husband and his seafaring friends - as well as their sons - spend most of their time at sea, going from port to port, living their lives, taking on mistresses, and dealing with the effects of the war which eventually touches all their lives.
It’s a very sad story and there is the sense of isolation and being left behind permeates throughout as we follow the lives of these women and are party to watching their lives and dreams slowly slipping away from them.
It’s a tough read in the sense that Ioanna’s impressionistic approach to the writing can sometimes be confusing and one has to really read this in order to truly follow what is going on. Like Faulkner, time weaves in and out, stories branch off other stories, and then wrap themselves around again. The writing is absolutely superb but this is not a novel you will breeze through but the story itself will carry you through. Definitely recommended but be prepared to work a little.