April 12, 2012 by markstani
Island Of Wings by Karin Altenberg (pub. Quercus), which has been longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, addresses one of the subjects I find most irresistible: St Kilda – not the sexy Melbourne suburb, but the barren shard of rocks jutting out of the rolling North Atlantic some fifty miles west of the Outer-est Outer Hebride.
It’s a tiny archipelago struck by storms so severe they are said to have temporarily deafened its inhabitants, who sustained the bleakest of lives there over centuries until the remaining handful finally succumbed to the inevitable and evacuated in the 1930s.
Their lives are already well documented, not least in Tom Steel’s thorough but rather dry The Life & Death Of St Kilda, as well as in Judith Schalansky’s simply gorgeous Atlas Of Remote Islands.
Schalansky’s conceit is to consider fifty islands ‘I have not visited and never will’, but that is to dismiss the fact that the archipelago, now home only to a small military base, is actually relatively accessible via charter boat, assuming your disposition is sturdy enough to stomach eight-hour round trips through seas that continue to roll and roar.
Altenberg, who is Swedish, and who was first attracted to the Hebridean region by its Scandinavian heritage, has visited St Kilda, which is immediately apparent in the detail she affords its geography in this, her lovely, engaging debut novel.
The wind was in from the west, and life in Village Bay was still on the lee side. A group of children were playing on the thin strip of sandy beach exposed by the ebb tide. Their cries and laughter glittered in the clear spring morning. An eider sailed past the rocks in the shallows, proud of her clever chicks which were towed after her in an erratic, downy line. Further out in Village Bay gannets were dropping into the sea, their necks stretched like feathered arrows as they pierced the surface of the waves.
Altenberg frames her narrative around a real-life couple, the ambitious minister Neil MacKenzie, who sails to the islands determined to save the souls of its seemingly savage inhabitants, and his new wife Lizzie.
Altenberg performs the inevitable juggling act of blending facts hewn from island literature and Mackenzie’s own diaries, and necessary fiction, with aplomb. The resulting story is a gripping and wholly believable one: when tragedy strikes, the minister seeks solace in his mission, leaving Lizzie to struggle on largely alone.
It’s a clever framing device, and although it is prone to occasional lapses into melodrama, it certainly imbues the book, and thus historic life on the island, with a humanity missing from Steel’s comprehensive survey. But where Altenberg is particularly adept is in evoking the islanders’ harsh, unforgiving existence: their near-starvation through winter storms; the epidemic wiping out their new-born babies.
It is the church, rather than MacKenzie, which comes off worst in this novel: the islanders, who have survived for centuries and will do so for another century or so after the MacKenzies have departed, have a natural inclination to reject its attemped subjection of their traditional beliefs, which have, after all, sustained them on the islands for so long, and left them all together better cut out for coping with such a unique environment.
It is eighty years since the last St Kildan left the islands, but many still crave the chance to set foot on the place, at least for a fleeting visit. Altenberg’s novel is a touching reminder of the reasons why that allure remains so strong.