Do you follow the Orange Prize? I do. Of all the literary prizes that I take note of the Orange Prize consistently yields me the most interesting things to read. I did used to have this same relationship with the Man Booker as well but that love affair has cooled recently. Anyway. This years’ Orange has given me a couple wonderful treats including Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg.
In 1830 the Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie arrive on the island St. Kilda to do missionary work. The MacKenzies are hopeful, in love and happily expecting their first child. They are full of vigorous believe that their efforts to educate the populace of the island on all topics but especially God will set them all on the right path. And. If the island happens to turn more British during the process? So much the better. Don’t think that because the topic is religion and the island is in Scotland not Africa or Asia that Island of Wings isn’t also about colonialism.
St. Kilda was settled a thousand years before the MacKenzies arrived to do a makeover by Gaelic speaking Norsemen. Arriving at St Kilda the young couple is shocked to discover a place that seems medieval compared to the luxuries they left behind. Although only 40 miles off the coast of Scotland, the island might was well be 400 miles away for all the comfort that is there. A few times a year the taxman would come to the island to collect revenue and to drop off supplies otherwise the islanders provide for themselves what they need. This is a hardscrapple place to live. The islanders are raggedly dressed, their homes are filthy, malnutrition is rampant and one in three newborns does not survive their first week.
These challenges that met the MacKenzies are quickly compounded. Only Neil speaks Gaelic so Lizzie’s isolation is immediate. Lizzie’s child is still born and the wretched bleakness of the lives around her further forces Lizzie into her own world. Neil’s efforts to convert the natives are hardly successful and his plans to reorganize how they do their farming have dire consequences.
In a spare writing style Karin Altenberg has done four things very well in Island of Wings: history, geography, people and politics. She has given us intriguing historical details, a world impossible to imagine, characters that change not because they grow older but because of circumstance and experience and a powerful lesson in the politics of faith. Island of Wings is an impressive, thoughtful novel.