Unexpectedly rich, atmospheric

  • Book: Island of Wings
  • Location: St Kilda
  • Author: Karin Altenberg



A very cool, restrained book, this historical novel is set on St. Kilda, an island that is the furthest part of the British Isles. Beginning in 1830, the story follows Lizzie and her husband, missionary Rev. Neil MacKenzie, as they move from urban Scotland to the isolated, rocky, backwards island.

In some ways, the novel’s arc is unsurprising — the proper British couple is first charmed, then horrified, by the savage land — but Altenberg’s writing is controlled and captivating, and the development of Lizzie and Neil is surprising and familiar in a way that satisfies. I was strongly reminded of Jane Campion movies (like The Piano) in this novel: the focus on women, the impact of men on their lives, and a harsh and unforgiving world (both literally and emotionally).

There’s a kind of historical mystery to the story, too, in the background, that Altenberg fully explains in her Notes. Altenberg’s background is in archaeology, which comes out in the novel’s almost naturalistic style of narrative, which fits the story: it has that kind of clinical feel of 19th century amateur scientists. The formal, controlled language, of course, does nothing to control, prevent, or manage the more ‘earthy’ events that occur, and it is that clash of aspiration and reality that provokes and changes Lizzie.

This is a sad novel, but not miserable, moving, with slightly unlikable characters. I felt affection and aggravation at Lizzie, some empathy and irritation toward her husband, Neil, and their marriage was one I rooted for and wished would end. They were, in short, real people, complicated and full, and their story and that of St. Kilda’s is one that is moving, engrossing, and atmospheric. An unexpectedly rich novel for the end of my year.

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