Recently Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have been the setting for all sorts of interesting and diverse books, from Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Stornoway Way’ and the fabulous collection of poetry which he edited, ‘These Islands We Sing’, through Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Da Happie Laand’ and Neil Butler’s ‘The Roost’ to the recently published ‘Orkney’ by Amy Sackville. Not only do they add to the literary landscape, they tell tales of a part of the world that the majority of the people in Scotland have never visited. They add to the cultural whole.
‘Island of Wings’, by Karin Altenberg, is set on the island of St Kilda, perhaps the most remote setting Scotland has to offer. The young Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie are recently married, and without really knowing each other they leave the familiarity of the mainland to live in a place which will not only test them mentally, but physically as well.
Set between 1830 and 1843, this is a novel of manners, one which, at least to begin with has the style of Jane Austen, or even John Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’, in that there are constant battles between what is socially expected and what the human heart desires. Most of the Seven Deadly Sins are in evidence, with lust, envy and pride being most prevalent. Both Neil and Lizzie are affected by the place and its people, and although he speaks Gaelic while she does not, he finds it as hard to communicate with his parishioners as she does, and eventually she is the one who ‘settles’ more easily, while Neil’s religion becomes a barrier rather than something which unites.
St Kilda of the time is a brutal place, one where the neonatal death rate is higher than 50 percent, and where you are constantly battered by the elements. The title ‘Island of Wings’, comes from the noise made by the birds which fly overhead and nest in the rocks. The noise is relentless, and wearing, and this is the feeling you get from the novel, that this is a place which is wearing both Lizzie and Neil down, and their relationship suffers from the start. Neil becomes more involved with his calling as tragedy upon tragedy visit the pair, and the island. Although the narration focuses on many different characters, this feels like Lizzie’s story as she has to endure her life in increasing loneliness, separate from the Islanders, and her increasingly fervent and fractured husband.
It’s time for a musical interlude, and this book gives me the perfect opportunity to play one of my favourite songs from the ‘80s; this is Goodbye Mr Mackenzie with ‘The Rattler’:
‘Island of Wings’ is based on real life accounts, but Altenberg uses those to create a fiction which pulls you in to a world which is as unfamiliar and terrifying as any fantasy land. You feel that the land is a character all of its own, and it is the one which will endure eventually. Altenberg captures the place as well as the time. What I will say is that there is a section in the book which pulled me up short, and shows why research and proofing is vital. Lizzie has an oil painting of a seascape, bought by her sister on a trip to the seaside in East Kilbride. I feel petty pointing it out, (I am petty pointing it out! I’m sure she means West Kilbride rather than the land-locked New Town), but I mention it because it’s interesting how you can be engrossed in another world, and then such a factually incorrect piece of writing can break the spell. It’s a lesson to any prospective writers.
But that is such a small point, and it shouldn’t put you off the book. If you like a doomed romance, with dark & handsome strangers, accusations of adultery, simmering passions, righteous indignation, fire, brimstone and even the possible appearance of Auld Nick himself, then you will love this book. It is a sensual novel where you can almost taste the salt on the wind and hear the birds in the sky. Writers who deal in historical fiction often let the fiction down by being obsessed with the history. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, but with ‘Island of Wings’, Karin Altenberg has done this with some style.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Des Dillon could be described as one of Scotland’s best kept secrets, a prolific writer of prose and drama who has never really had the recommendation he deserves.
Perhaps this is because he commits that cardinal sin of being genuinely funny, something which many see, wrongly, as less than serious. ‘Me and Ma Gal’ showcases this aspect of his writing brilliantly. It’s a book about childhood and friendship, one which moves at a breathless speed, but what is Dillon’s greatest strength is his mastery of language. If ever you thought that writing in Central Belt Scots is somehow less than artistic, then you must read this book as it will prove you wrong.
- Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)
- Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)
- Sophie Cooke, The Glass House (Oct)
- Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
- 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)