Island Of Wings by Karin Altenberg
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
I hadn't heard of this book before it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I'm certainly glad it was brought to my attention. It is a well-researched, historical novel based on the journals of the real minister, Neil MacKenzie, who travels to St. Kilda in 1830 to convert the heathens, whether or not they want to change.
What I liked:
-There is Gaelic throughout the novel, and as someone who has studied Scottish Gaelic (very casually, don't be impressed), I really enjoyed seeing little bits of that. While she borrows some place names for the island from the highlands, it gave additional opportunities to use the beautiful words, and it helped place me there as the reader.
-This is obviously well-researched. It contains a lot of information about the patterns of the birds and the sea, and the extreme hardship of living on the island. It was similar in feeling to a book I recently read set in the Faroe Islands, The Old Man and His Sons, where every bit of survival depends on knowing the best time to kill the birds or hunt the seals.
What I didn't like as much:
-The character of Neil MacKenzie is incredibly frustrating, and perhaps that is true to his journals, but he never grows! He never learns! He never changes. He leaves St. Kilda just as stubborn and possibly more set on being the man in charge.
-The idea that the wife never learns any Gaelic to communicate with the other islanders? I mean, really? None? Can that be true? For her to be more of a redeeming character, she would have needed to immerse farther than also losing her children to the 8-day curse. Or maybe this is a product of the marriage between religion and colonialism.
-The lack of point of view from the St. Kildans. To me, the ancient history of the island, which the St. Kildans clearly are respectful of because of their unwillingness to change, is the more interesting story. I think I would have liked if the author had moved a little farther beyond the facts she was finding. It ends up being a little shallow of a story, with the repeated patterns between Neil and Lizzie, and Neil and his 'congregation.'
Overall, I'd give this about 3.5 stars, and one entire star of that is my own sentimentality for cold weather islands, remote places, and Gaelic. I wouldn't expect it to make the shortlist, but if it does it would have to be because it tells one historic story of a place that has since been abandoned to the birds.