Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

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Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: In this compelling book combining adventure, love and historical testimony based on real people's lives, a Presbyterian missionary Rev Neil MacKenzie and his pregnant wife, Lizzie, are sent to the Hebridian island of St Kilda to bring the population back to God, away from their odd superstitions. It's 1830 so they both try to cope with a harsh environment and lifestyle whilst Lizzie has to cope with a different man from the one she thought she'd married.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-0857382320

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

Rev Neil MacKenzie has been assigned to the Hebridian island of St Kilda. His mission is to bring the locals back to the Victorian idea of God and propriety. He and his pregnant wife Lizzie not only have to fight the elements but also centuries of superstition that have trickled into the islanders' Christian faith. Life is made harder for Neil by a secret guilt emanating from the death of a friend years ago. However, the going becomes harder still for Lizzie, isolated by an inability to speak the local language and the burgeoning fear engendered by Neil's behaviour and attitudes.

I'll get my one moan out the way first. It's not a gripe about the novel, but with the blurb on the back. 'Stunning... yes, definitely. Compelling... indeed, hugely. However, the question Would you go to the end of the earth for love? gives totally the wrong impression. There may be a love story, but that's secondary to so much more. It would be like the blurb for Gone with the Wind stating 'Lady who lives in a big house watches a city burn.'

Karin Altenberg (an archaeologist by training) has turned painstaking research into a flowing, fascinating account of daily life in 19th century St Kilda. This makes it even more riveting as, it may have been a British island, but its culture is now extinct. The rocky outcrops of the Hebridean islands didn't make it easy for the inhabitants to produce their sparse crops and small herds for sustenance, supplemented by the native seabirds. Most of the island's needs were provided by supply ships, dependant on weather and the whims of the taxman. It's therefore easy to see why superstitions and beliefs that held sway for generations before still held sway on 19th century St Kilda. Easy to see, that is, unless you happen to be Neil MacKenzie. The author doesn't just interpret history in a gripping way, she's also very good at guiding the reader around a tortured mind.

Rev MacKenzie is a true Victorian clergyman, believing that if he preaches emphatically enough, these 'natives' (whom he treats as wayward children, with misunderstanding and condescension in equal parts) will drop centuries of tradition to embrace the Bible as he sees it. As it becomes harder than he imagined, he begins to exhibit what we today may call a depressive or stress-induced condition. This is exacerbated by an infant mortality rate of 60%, of which he and the increasingly lonely Lizzie have firsthand experience. (Karin Altenberg's notes about this at the back of the novel are as interesting as they are heartbreaking.) Both Neil and Lizzie are locked up in their own worlds, straitjacketed by their (and probably the Victorian era's) inability to share or explain their emotions. It's telling that Lizzie is only able to be herself with Betty, the nursemaid they've employed for their children, but remains 'Mrs MacKenzie' to her own husband.

Don't get the wrong impression, though. Island life isn't always dour. Island of Wings contains many engrossing vignettes which don't involve the emotions. They seamlessly throw into relief the contrast of their story's era with ours, for instance, no modern-day naturalist (one assumes) would sit in a boat, throwing stones at puffins in order to knock them off a cliff. Also, St Kilda's celebrations and traditions are documented vividly, ensuring they live in the readers' imagination.

When all is taken into account this is a book about the battle for survival: the survival of Neil's mission, that of his relationship with Lizzie, that of their children and, on a grander scale, the survival of the inhabitants of St Kilda against adversity in all its forms. Unfortunately, the islanders lost their particular battle tragically in the following century.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to try another Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 long list novel about people fighting odds stacked against them, try Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding. We also enjoyed Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg.

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