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Remote possibilities

04 January 2012


Island of Wings
Karin Altenberg
Quercus £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

ST KILDA used to be the most remote inhabited spot in the British Isles, before its abandonment in 1930. In the 19th century, it was a ten-hour sail to the nearest landfall, and the inhabitants made their living by catching sea-birds, for their meat and feathers. Not much grew on St Kilda, and perhaps this diet accounted for the appallingly high rate of infant mortality.

Karin Altenberg’s book is a novel, but a novel based on real people, chiefly the Presbyterian minister who was sent to the island in 1830, the Revd Neil MacKenzie and his wife, Lizzie. They stayed on the island until 1843, and during this time MacKenzie materially improved the physical well-being of the islanders (or “natives” as they are called here) by overseeing the building of a new village.

His main concern, however, was for their spiritual welfare, and the novel charts his battle against superstition and the remnants of popery. In this struggle, there is a high price to be paid. MacKenzie becomes power-crazed, as his mission is more about himself than God. One feels for Lizzie, married to an egomaniac, who, though “hand­some”, with a lock of hair falling over his eyes, is essentially charm­less.

Some of the best parts of this novel are its evocation of place. Despite its northerly location, St Kilda has a warm feel to it, and some of the descriptions are breath-taking. Altenberg is on less sure ground when she tries to write about sex, or when she is diverted into comedy; some of the conversa­tions sound stilted or jarring on the ear. Nineteenth-century conversa­tions need not sound archaic, but they do need to sound different from the way people speak today.

The most memorable passages are about the loss of children: Lizzie loses her first three to what was almost certainly neo-natal tetanus. The descriptions of what it is like to lose a child are haunting, and count among the most memorable passages of this interesting novel.

Alexander Lucie-Smith

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