In 1830, Reverend Neil Mckenzie and his young wife, Lizzie, make their way to the remote island of St Kilda to start a new life and bring Christianity to the Pagan inhabitants.
Poor, poor Lizzie. She is an English speaker on an island where everyone speaks Gaelic, except her husband, who is more interested in saving souls than keeping his wife company. It must have been an incredibly lonely life for her in the early days, isolated from the rest of the world. The infant mortality rate on the island was shockingly high and Lizzie suffers along with the other women, finding a bond amongst tragedy. Whilst based in fact, and the personal aspect of Island of Wings is fictional, it is not difficult to imagine this would have been the case.
The history books may have Mackenzie down as a man who brought civilised ways to St Kilda but Altenberg rewrites him as a man obsessed with religion, blind to the needs of those around him and zealous with the desire to turn the islanders to Christianity. The islanders themselves, seem rather tolerant of the missionary but it doesn’t work both ways and I found myself feeling anger towards him. It may have been normal for the day, but the idea of forcing religion on people is awful and he comes across as quite oppressive. He is too worried what other people may think of him and some of the thoughts he has about his wife are unforgivable. He even treats his children with coldness.
The dark months had not quite loosened their grip of the island yet, and the wind was raw. On days like these the grey hills and soaked valleys were numb and motionless – only the skies moved. At other times the island was so alive that the sky struggled to contain it.
The writing is evocative of the landscape with its beauty and its harshness. It is indeed an island of many wings, with birds playing a crucial role in both their survival and their superstitions. I found the history of the island and how they coped fascinating. I recently read of the guga culls of modern day Lewis in Peter May’s The Black House and it was interesting to see the origin of the custom. The harvest of seabirds was essential to survival, with food being scarce and no regular supplies brought in from the mainland.
In the end, St Kilda was not a viable place to live and the island is now uninhabited, although the native sheep still roam the hillsides. Read for the descriptions and the history, especially if you have an interest in the evolution of religion in the Highlands and Islands. The plot isn’t particularly strong, being based on historical events on an island where not much happens but there is a strong human element to it.
Island of Wings was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 and is Karin Altenberg’s first novel. It is currently available in paperback and ebook formats from Quercus. Thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.
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