‘An imaginative evocation of a world now disappeared’ – Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Last weekend’s Family section of the Guardian (24.03.12) carried a fascinating piece about a man born in St Kilda, Britain’s remotest archipelago and now abandoned. His family was amongst the last to be evacuated from the islands in the 1930s. Uncannily, St Kilda is the subject of the book reviewed here, and both the article and parts of this novel convey with power the unique character of an island people existing for 2,000 years. Island of Wings is a commendable attempt to tell the story of the men and women who lived there in the 1830s, a hundred years earlier, and how the outside world tried and failed to master St Kilda’s raw beauty and isolation.

Minister Neil MacKenzie is a zealous Scot and Calvinist with a young wife, the repressed but intrinsically passionate Lizzie. The Minister is determined to bring the islanders to heel, to create order and certainty where he perceives superstition and squalor. He is not lacking in compassion as much as lacking in empathy with the beliefs and traditional way of life of the St Kildans. Whereas Lizzie has a natural empathy with the island women and seeks out their comfort during the loss of her newborn babies to the endemic ‘eight day’ disease (now understood as tetanus). The islanders will not compete against each other, nor will they change their way of life for the sake of profit or hierarchy. This ingrained ethic means that the Minister will struggle to implement a new housing scheme to ‘improve’ their lives. This tension around improvement is a recurring theme throughout the novel, as is the reverence for the Minister despite the vulnerability it brings to islander and minister alike.

The best character of all, though, is the island itself. The author’s descriptions of bird-catching and the day-to-day struggles of island life are the strongest element of the novel and at times her ‘anthropological’ writing is tremendously evocative and compelling. Where the novel feels weak is in the dialogue and dynamic between the protagonists, Neil and Lizzie, and the rather romantic bonding between Lizzie and the island women. The author is more comfortable describing the people and the terrain rather than conjuring up the mortals placed at the centre of her novel, with their awkward and anachronistic verbal exchanges. This is also a symptom of merging nineteenth- and twenty-first century language in a manner a more accomplished novelist would resist. But despite this the novel works as a testament to the author’s knowledge and respect for the land and people of this barren place, and the ironies of history and religion are stark and profound in the author’s hands.

Any Cop?: Great anthropology based on real-life historical characters, an imaginative evocation of a world now disappeared.   

Mrs Hyde


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