Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg

Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg
Published by Quercus, 2nd February 2012 (first published 2011)
Genres: Historical fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased (second-hand)

Trigger warnings: miscarriage, infant death


Neil MacKenzie journeys with his new and pregnant wife Lizzie to the remote island archipelago of St Kilda, where he will become the minister. Life in this far-removed part of the British Isles is harsh and unforgiving, the locals live in dreadful conditions and their beliefs are still strongly rooted in superstition and pagan ritual.

Both Neil and Lizzie will be sorely tested as they adapt to their new island home. Neil’s faith is indomitable, however, as he sets about the difficult task of bringing his new congregation into the light. Lizzie, who does not speak Gaelic, struggles with loneliness and despairs of finding happiness and fulfilment here.

My thoughts

This is a very atmospheric story, based on the real Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his wife who did a great deal to help the remote island community during their time there. They worked to improve the lives of their flock in many ways: by establishing a school so the children could learn to read and write, by rebuilding the village to provide better living conditions and by revolutionising agriculture on the island.

A great deal of research has clearly gone into this book. The descriptions of the living conditions on St Kilda were very evocative and extremely interesting. In addition, Karin Altenberg writes beautifully in a language not her own and for that, she is to be congratulated.

I was particularly drawn to Lizzie and her character development during her time on St Kilda. She starts off as a meek and uncertain young lady, unsure of her place in her own household let alone the wider island community. She becomes a strong woman, an attentive mother and an important part of the community. Although she never learned Gaelic, which seems very odd to me…

I did not particularly warm to Neil, however. He is obsessed with his “mission” to evangelise the locals and is so determined to be admired, or preferably adored. So much so that he feels the need to criticise and belittle others, especially his wife, to make himself feel better and more important.

Having read The Lost Lights of St Kilda last year, I was interested to read this earlier account of life on this remote island and I am glad that I chose it as part of my 2021 reading challenge, for a book with a rural setting. I can’t help but wonder, however, how much of the history and traditions of the St Kildans were lost over the years as a result of forcing organised religion and “modern” improvements on them…

My rating: 4/5

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