Author Victoria Hislop tells Graham Norton about ‘burning inspiration’ behind new book The Figurine

Virgin Radio

21 Oct 2023, 15:45

Author Victoria Hislop has confessed that her new book, The Figurine, contains a “very passionate view" about the world's antiquities and where they should really be. 

The historical drama novel, out now, is set during the period of the Junta army dictatorship in Greece in the 1960s and 1970s, and Victoria’s story was inspired by the Cycladic figurine and the influence they had on 20th century art. She wanted to explore the crime that beauty and antiquity can drive people to.

Speaking on The Graham Norton Radio Show with Waitrose, The Island writer revealed that the statutes, most of whom are women and found by grave sites, are actually illegal to buy and sell, and the genesis of her story came from the argument over antiquities in museums thousands of miles away from their home. 

She explained: “I came across these figurines myself for the first time and just adore the aesthetics of them, they are extremely beautiful. They're like a little mini supermodel goddesses. What had been interesting me for a little bit longer than that was this sort of big controversy over the theft of what I call the Parthenon sculptures, and some people call them the Elgin Marbles, and there's always a little bit of a tussle.

“I got very interested in that subject, because I was always being nagged, which is quite a polite word, by my Greek friends and people who interviewed me in Greece, about what I thought about where the ones that we have in the British Museum should really be. And there's a huge movement to have them returned to Athens.”

Lord Elgin’s procurement of the marble statuettes became the “burning inspiration” behind The Figurine as Victoria wanted to use the “theft” as the main driving force behind the novel. 

Victoria continued: “I love The Figurine very much. Beneath the surface is a very passionate view I have that we shouldn't half inch things from other countries and then put them in our museums and say, ‘aren't we marvellous? This is ours, come and have a look’, because many of the things that we have in our museums are not ours.”

The story focuses on a young girl called Helena, who visits Athens for the first time and stays with her grandparents. Helena’s grandfather used to be a general in the military, and when she eventually stumbles upon an array of valuable antiques, she starts to question how her family managed to obtain such treasured items without being noticed. 

The synopsis continues: “Helena’s desire to find answers about her heritage dovetails with a growing curiosity for archaeology, ignited by a summer spent with volunteers on a dig on an Aegean island. Their finds fuel her determination to protect the precious fragments recovered from the baked earth - and to understand the origins of her grandfather’s collection.”

While some of the story is based in Greece, much of the backdrop is in Oxford where Helena goes to university and the town in Suffolk where she grows up, but there’s a much more personal connection involved for Victoria. 

“There’s a little autobiography in there,” the Greece Dancing with the Stars contestant added. “I’ve actually, rather to my sister's annoyance, based the town of Delbridge on the town that she lives in called Woodbridge, where nothing bad ever happens. It's sort of the antithesis of the Athens of the 1960s. Very quiet and she is a little bit me.”

The Figurine by Victoria Hislop is out now.

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