I received a copy of the book from the publishers in return for an honest review.
About The Book
1957: Iris Bailey is bored to death of working in the typing pool and living
with her parents in Hemel Hampstead. A gifted portraitist with a talent for
sketching guests at parties, she dreams of becoming an artist. So she can’t
believe her luck when wealthy socialite Nell Hardman invites her to
Havana to draw at the glittering wedding of her Hollywood director father.
Iris is thrilled to escape to a faraway city by the sea. But she soon realizes
that the cocktails, tropical scents and azure skies mask a darker reality. As
Cuba teeters on the edge of revolution and Iris’s heart melts for troubled
photographer Joe, she discovers that someone in the charismatic Hardman
family is hiding a terrible secret. Can she uncover the ugly truth behind the
glamour and the dazzle before all their lives are torn apart?
Island of Secrets by Rachel Rhys is one of those books which you can’t help but get lost in. It’s 1957 and Iris is a frustrated artist working as a typist in London. Her parents have forbade her to continue with her art education and she spends her day in a typing pool, her looks being scored out of ten by the men she works for, missing her art school friends terribly and willing the hands on the clock to move faster. When she starts drawing portraits at events she meets the glamorous American, Nell whose father, Hugh Hardman is a director of Hollywood films. He’s getting married again and Nell wants her to attend, drawing the guests at the wedding, and so, she finds herself in Havana, not only amongst Hollywood’s elite but amongst the businessmen looking to turn Cuba into a gambling mecca.
I loved this book. LOVED IT. I’m lucky enough to have to been to Havana and visited many of the places featured in the book. I’ve seen the dancers at The Tropicana, walked along the Malecon and sipped a cocktail at the Hotel Nacional and Island of Secrets took me right back. It is an evocative read with a wonderful sense of place captured in its beautiful descriptions.
But what I especially enjoyed was the portrayal of Cuba on the cusp of change. The Castro brothers and Che Guevera are holed up in the mountains plotting a revolution and whilst the Americans are convinced that they are untouchable, the Cubans are poised to take their country back. Opulent hotels and houses decorated with marble and chandeliers line the streets but a short distance away there is poverty and Cubans begging on the street. The city simmers with tension and violence and it seeps from the pages.
Rachel Rhys communicates this fear and uncertainty well, reflecting the political tensions in the main storyline of Iris’ attendance at the wedding of Hugh. The event is being held at the home of an American businessman and whilst she is easily impressed by the swimming pool and the beautiful surroundings it is clear that something malevolent sits just out of reach. She is a naive and innocent young woman who doesn’t quite realise that she may be in the lion’s den. This is Hugh’s third wedding, his first ended in divorce and his second was embroiled in drama after his beautiful actress wife fell to her death from their yacht a few years earlier.
The case has recently been reopened, unsettling the family and threatening to spill long buried secrets. This combined with the wedding, which in itself is scandalous, is drawing attention to those gathered at the celebration. The depiction of the mystery surrounding the death, the drama around the wedding and the guests who all seem to be hiding something makes for entertaining reading. It is brilliantly written stuff and makes for a real page turner.
The backdrop of a country under political unrest, a potential murder and scandal reflects the growing changes in Iris. She is written with real tenderness and my heart ached for her. Her outfits aren’t quite right and being a well brought up girl from the home counties some of the things which she encounters scandalises her. But she never comes across as being too innocent, or too naive, in fact, her growth and bravery is lovely to see.
Lets not forget that it is the late 1950s, a very different era to now, and a different world for women. This book is as much an exploration of women in society as it is a historical mystery. They are shown in all of their multifacted glory and are the centrepoint around which everything else rotates. None of them fit the mould of what a woman in 1957 was ‘expected’ to be and this is eye-opening to Iris who expected her future to involve marriage and chops and 2 veg on the table at 6pm every evening. It makes for great reading and I adored the women which Rachel Rhys writes so convincingly.
I read this over one sunny weekend and the heat and vibrancy of Havana transported me from Northumberland to a wedding in 1957 filled with Hollywood stars, dodgy businessmen and an impending revolution. It’s a great piece of historical fiction which deals with some important issues and I adored it.
About The Author
Rachel Rhys is the pen-name of a much-loved psychological suspense author. She is the author of the Richard and Judy bookclub pick, Dangerous Crossing and the bestselling A Fatal Inheritance. Rachel Rhys lives in North London with her family
Where You Can Buy It
My thanks to Penguin Random House for providing me with a copy of the book via Netgalley. My thanks also to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for an invitation to join the Blog Tour.