The Back of Beyond (by Sheila Hawkins)

I had never heard of Sheila Hawkins. Apparently she died just over five years ago, but was a very popular writer in her local circle around Paphos. I doubt if I would have picked this book up, but a friend had acquired two copies and gave me one last year. My friend enjoyed it, so I finally picked it up to read a month or two back, and have just finished it.

‘The Back of Beyond’ is a honest, sometimes amusing account of the time when the author and her husband Harry moved permanently to Cyprus. They had been stationed there many years earlier and fell in love with the island. According to the book, Harry took early retirement in 1984 so they could fulfil their dream. Their children were grown up, and they had few ties to the UK.

The couple had bought some land in a village a few years earlier, and planned to build a house. So they rented locally, and quickly discovered the problems inherent in a Mediterranean culture, where nothing happens quickly or on time. Thirty-five years later, that philosophy has not changed significantly!

The book is very well-written, full of observations and descriptive language of the kind which I would usually skim; but, at least in the first chapters, I read every word and appreciated the images and word pictures. The author’s husband has illustrated the book with some line drawings, which add to its appeal.

However, a lot of the focus is on local flora and fauna. I found myself having to re-read pages about local birds, and shrubs, and so on; I’m not particularly interested in natural history. And some of it is unpleasant reading - birds of prey are not kind. I didn’t enjoy the chapter about a Christmas pig being slaughtered either, although this animal undoubtedly had a good life. Nor did I like the chapter about spiders!

But I did appreciate some of the insights into local customs and communication. Sheila Hawkins was clearly a friendly, outgoing person. She was interested in her neighbours, and quickly learned at least the rudiments of Greek. She didn’t mind being corrected, or laughed at, and even then there were a surprising number of people who spoke at least reasonable English.

‘The Back of Beyond’ isn’t exactly a travel guide, although it would make interesting reading for anyone wanting to know about animals and plants in Cyprus. It isn’t exactly biographical either, although it charts the building of the house, and the couple’s gradual acceptance into what was formerly quite a closed community. But as a book to pick up at odd moments, with a light-hearted style, it made an interesting read.

Recommended to anyone wanting to know a bit more about Cyprus towards the end of the 20th century. No longer in print, but available for the Kindle.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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