"His keen understanding of history and legend...illuminate[s] his visits." â€”Publishers Weekly
"A vivid picture of the island." â€”Associated Press
"It is hard to think of anywhere on earth where so many firsts and mosts are crammed into a space so small," Barry Unsworth writes of the isle of Crete. Birthplace of the Greek god Zeus, the Greek alphabet, and the first Greek laws, as well as the home of 15 mountain ranges and the longest gorge in Europe, this land is indisputably unique. And since ancient times, its inhabitants have maintained an astonishing tenacity and sense of national identity, even as they suffered conquest and occupation by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and Germans.
Throughout this evocative book, now in trade paper, Unsworth describes the incredible physical and cultural proportions of the islandâ€”in history, myth, and reality. Moving and artful, Crete gives readers a comprehensive picture and rich understanding of this complexâ€”and indeed, almost magicalâ€”world of Mediterranean wonders.
With the same keen eye and clear, eloquent prose that distinguishes his acclaimed historical novels, Barry Unsworth delivers his readers a two-fold traveler's reward, at once a wonderfully detailed panorama of Crete's many layers of history and an evocative portrait of an island almost literally larger than life.
From Publishers Weekly
Booker Prizewinning novelist Unsworth (Sacred Hunger, etc.) travels with his wife to the ancient island of Crete, where, according to the Greeks, "everything began." The island's history is gruesome due to centuries of occupation by Venetian, German and Turkish conquerors, so Crete can "sometimes seem a patchwork of stories, from primal myth to heroic legend, to the embroideries of local gossip." Just as the "Cretans love stories," so does Unsworth, and on visiting the wonders of the island-the "holy cavern of Psychro" (the supposed birthplace of Zeus), the gorges of Samaria and Therisso, the Lasithi Plateau-he infuses his narrative with historical facts, mythic lore and a deep appreciation for nature. His keen understanding of history and legend also illuminates his visits to the island's churches and monasteries, and particularly the ruined palace at Knossos, where the hero Theseus was said to have defeated the "monstrous Minotaur." A reverence for Crete's flora and fauna pervades Unsworth's exacting prose ("the scrub glows with a soft burnish, flame-colored, forming a landscape almost too beautiful to be quite believed in"), and he often couples these descriptions with sadness over Crete's invasive, oppressive tourism industry. The people of Crete, Unsworth notes more than once, are "of great spirit and generous hospitality [but also possess an] implacable vindictiveness," often still upholding "blood feuds" that originated centuries ago. Despite Unsworth's bouts of melancholy and occasional frustrations, the author's thoughtful journey eventually finds peace and comfort in "the vitality and warmth of the people and the unfailing charm of the landscape."
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Novelist Unsworth's report of his and his wife Aira's recent sojourn on Crete is nothing if not counsel to slow down and smell the flowers and, more to the point on this island, see the light, which, brilliant and caressing, highlights every detail yet gathers one into the totality of the place. Ironically, the brevity mandated by the National Geographic Directions series imparts a rushed quality to the book. He and Aira seem always to be frantically driving until they really must walk, either because the way becomes vehicularly impassable or too lovely not to saunter along. They visit great vistas and imposing natural features (on Crete, mainly its dramatic gorges, the last refuges for some unique island species); caves in which gods were born, saints later resided, and religious and patriotic martyrs suffered; and the remains of the first great European civilization, that of the vanished people archaeologist Arthur Evans, their discoverer, dubbed Minoans. About all of this Unsworth is informative though pensive, for he sees everywhere the depredations of tourism. Ray Olson
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