May 5, 2012

Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg

This novel reminds me a bit of Ivan Doig's writing: it is not plot or narrative driven, but rather pulled from the subtle emotions of its protagonists in a setting where the land itself is the main character. The Reverend and Mrs. MacKenzie are sent to the desolate isle of St. Kilda, the remotest inhabited island of the Hebrides, north of Scotland. The natives speak no English, only Gaelic, live in the same manner and huts in which their ancestors lived, and are - according to the Church of Scotland - stricken with pagan superstition. MacKenzie, full of unspeakable guilt from an incidence in his past, resolves to pull the natives out of the proverbial and literal muck and turn them into enlightened, eager Christians. His wife, young and pregnant upon their arrival and lacking any sense of purpose, is instantly, helplessly lonely. As the years go on and children are born and live or die, the MacKenzies grow further apart, one accepting the realities of life on St. Kilda, one railing against them.

This is a slow book; it requires patience and complete reading. It is not a book written so the reader can find out what happened, rather, it is meant to draw attention to the way in which nature eventually takes its own. The cycle of life on the island is inexorable, though the St. Kildans cannot survive without extra supplies brought to them from the mainland at least once a year. It is about the constant struggle between evolution and tradition, man and nature, life and death. Sixty percent of babies born on St. Kilda die within eight days, but the islanders are not embittered or hardened by this; they mourn each child that cannot survive and treat each other with a compassion that Rev. MacKenzie cannot seem to emulate, let alone understand.

There are times in the book when my eyes glazed over a bit, such as the detailed descriptions of how the St. Kildans climbed the cliffs or fished, but the overall beauty of the writing would always pull me back in. I am impressed with Altenberg's sophisticated prose, and would certainly read more of her work in the future.

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