1957: Iris Bailey is bored to death of working in the typing pool and living with her parents in Hemel Hempstead. A gifted portraitist with a talent for sketching party guests, she dreams of becoming an artist. So she can’t believe her luck when socialite Nell Hardman invites her to Havana to draw at the wedding of her Hollywood director father.
Far from home, she quickly realizes 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 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?
This was such a treat to read. I absolutely lost myself aboard Rachel Rhys’ previous novel, Dangerous Crossing and I absolutely could not wait to travel to Cuba and lose myself in the sun-drenched atmosphere of her latest read, Island of Secrets. I was utterly delighted when Anne Cater invited me onto the blog tour for Island of Secrets and could not wait to escape and see what awaited me there…
Iris Bailey is another narrator that we absolutely identify with as we are plunged into a whole new world right alongside her. Travelling to exotic Cuba was nothing that she had ever imagined in her humdrum Hemel-Hempstead life in the typing pool. Her life is turned absolutely upside down when glamorous Nell invites her to Havana to deploy her artistic skills among the rich and famous at her movie-director father’s wedding. At first Iris seems entranced by the heady glamour that surrounds her in this very different world – but Iris soon finds the sheen of novelty wearing off as she begins to sense the seamier underbelly of this dream destination…
The people Iris is exposed to in Cuba are very different to her previous experiences and her shyness and introverted nature threaten to overwhelm her until she discovers that it is perhaps her very shyness that creates a space for her subjects to open up and begin to tell her truths about their inner selves. Iris is then led down a dangerous pathway where the normal boundaries become blurred in the glamorous and heady atmosphere she now finds herself in. Journalist Eugene and photographer Joe are more worldly than Iris and begin to see that they have uncovered some things that many of the more powerful characters that surround them would prefer to stay hidden. Iris begins to see that the political undercurrents and fragile allegiances that surround her mean that every step is fraught with danger and it is difficult to know exactly who to trust as she tries to navigate this disorientating and wholly unfamiliar situation.
Iris makes for such a memorable narrator: because she is so naive and sheltered that we often sense dangers around her that she is at first less aware of – which creates a satisfying tension as we try to anticipate when things will begin to come clear to her. At first, we too fall in love with Cuba, seeing it through her eyes and finding it as heady, magical and steamily glamorous as she does. Her growing friendship with Joe and Eugene and her dawning awareness of what they see lurking beneath the surface provides an interesting counterpoint to her experiences with the rich socialites like Barbara Bonini and Lana the blushing bride and keeps you turning the pages as more and more secrets begin to come to light. The reader develops a dawning sense that most people assembled for these nuptials are very different than they at first might have appeared and she will need to keep her wits about her as she gets drawn deeper into situations where she feels more and more out of her depth.
Rachel Rhys’ reputation as a first-class purveyor of classy historical mysteries is wonderfully apparent as the plot skilfully seduces us with the balmy Havana breezes and lulls us into a false sense of security right alongside Iris. Once the glamour starts to tarnish for her, we are right there alongside her as she tries to get to the bottom of the nest of vipers that she has found herself caught up in.
Once again, Rhys proves herself a worthy successor of Dame Agatha Christie in terms of keeping the reader on their toes and providing us with a lot of misdirections and sleight-of-hand that kept me feverishly turning the pages long after my bedtime -and on a school night too! I was totally invested in the mystery as Iris got more and more out of her depth in understanding anyone’s true motives or who she could truly trust. I hate giving spoilers, so I’m definitely avoiding too much detail about exactly what secrets and lies they manage to uncover behind the gorgeously painted facades of Havana– but I can promise you that you’ll not be able to stop reading, once you’ve started.
The period is evocatively recreated for us and the glamorous and decadent atmosphere is skilfully realised by Rachel Rhys. I love this post-war period, its glamorous clothing, the dances and drinks in the louche and wealthy circles that Iris becomes exposed to, the sense that the world is changing around them as the political climate in Cuba starts to build momentum around them.
I’ve never been to Cuba but it’s most definitely on my bucket list and I loved the way that Island of Secrets allowed me to vicariously experience the vintage glamour and excitement from lockdown in Bonnie Scotland. I read this in a single day, I was so fascinated by Iris and her story and I desperately wanted to know what was lurking beneath the surface of the Hardman family’s seemingly gilded life. The plotting is as skilful as ever, the characters are wonderfully captured and the lush setting seductively whisked me off to a gorgeous destination from the comfort of my own garden.
This is a wholly satisfying read and I absolutely loved it. If you like your thrillers brutal and depraved, then this might not appeal to you – but if you enjoy a wonderful period read with an evocative atmosphere that will stay with you then you’ll definitely love it too.
Thanks so much for Anne Cater for inviting me aboard on the Blog Tour – It was definitely just the trip that I needed over lockdown I didn’t want to end. I’d love to see this on the screen and I can already envisage some of the locations and costumes in my mind’s eye
Buy yourself a copy here so that you can pack your own bags and head off to Havana and experience it for yourself
Writer on the Shelf
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. Her latest novel is the immersive Island of Secrets.
Rachel Rhys lives in North London with her family.