Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fascinating St Kilda debut

The island of St Kilda, 1830. Into a society still living the same ways since the days of the ancestors, comes single-minded minister, Neil MacKenzie and his new wife, Lizzie.
Neil is as full of missionary zeal as anyone going to convert native Africans to Christianity, but isn’t prepared for the discovery that such a barren part of the Empire is within his country’s own shores.
Lizzie is prepared to be fashionable and proud of her position, and is utterly unable to relate to the locals. She speaks no gaelic, finds their communal and harsh way of life far removed from her previous life on the mainland.
Swedish author, Karin Altenberg, in beautifully expressed prose (English is her second language) brings to life the shared poverty of the burrows where the islanders live, the floors full of accumulated filth that is shovelled out to fertilise the fields in spring. The hand-to-mouth lives, seabirds providing the most valuable natural resource, even to the fulmar oil to provide their lighting. No furniture and with no wood, only driftwood to provide nowhere near enough coffins.
Having myself once visited the Skara Brae on the Orkneys and found it fascinating to see the still existing underground burrows, topped with grass roofs, I longed to know how the author stumbled upon the story that these remote people were still living this life well into the 19th century. It’s a doomed story as you recognise that change can no longer be resisted.
Expect, like Lizzie, to get drawn, in as we hear how no trees can withstand the weather and the salt, and the seabirds provide a sparse but sustainable living on the far outreaches of a country that has already seen so much change.
As her husband decides that only change will bring these souls closer to God – sanitary housing, a system of crops, it is Lizzie who finds she is learning from the locals and considers who is really closer to God.
A debut novelist that has written a really engrossing and different story.
Island of Wings          Karin Altenberg                Quercus               12.99

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