Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
March 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
Once upon a time, I used to skip massive swathes of description, pages taken up with the minutiae of a place, its weather, the colour of the sky and the feel of the air. There was often a surfeit of description, I felt: if I’d taken it in once, I didn’t need to go through it again. The important part was the characters, their feelings, their development, and I was eager to return to the meat of the novel. But then came writing that could have been set anywhere, and was mostly set inside a character’s head, and place receded into the background. This is fine for some novels, but others—most recently Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, both set in particularly interesting times and locations—really lack a solid grounding in place. Both writers have done their research and incorporated important details, but in between these details it is hard to remember you are in Berlin or Paris (the London section of Funder’s book was better in this regard), and the characters seem to drift back into a highly nuanced and finely observed netherworld of the mind.
Karin Altenberg’s debut novel Island of Wings, longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, is therefore refreshing in its ability to evoke place, specifically St Kilda, one of the most remote groups of islands off the coast of Scotland. From the book’s blurb, it appears that Altenberg’s background is in archaeology, and she is a Fellow of the Linnean Society. This really comes through in her attention to detail: landscape, flora and fauna all come alive with nary an overdone moment. It’s like savouring a wonderful cocktail instead of having to down several different shots and a juice chaser. Everything works harmoniously towards the same end; everything is in the right place.
The plot itself is based on the true story of Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie, posted to the islands of St Kilda by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the 1830s. The newly married pair settle in the manse on the island of Hirta, some distance away from the ancient village where the natives live in their semi-underground huts. The harsh life of the island, including a high rate of infant mortality that does not leave the MacKenzies untouched, mirrors the internal struggles that both Neil and Lizzie live through. Neil is evangelical, convinced of the rightness of converting the St Kildans to Christianity and frustrated when they revert to superstition at times of fear. Lizzie, isolated by the fact that she doesn’t speak Gaelic, is trying to reconcile herself to her new life, distressed that her husband doesn’t even recognise her loneliness. Ultimately, both have to make some compromises.
Altenberg takes a while to settle into her voice, with the prose early on being distracted by an overly explanatory tone, but by the end both characters and voice are secure. The combination of the extreme and remote setting, the marriage, the islanders themselves and the background of the break from the Church of Scotland of many of the more evangelical ministers make this an excellent debut. I think it has a good chance of winning the Orange Prize, particularly as it doesn’t strike me as the sort of book that will inspire love/hate divisions.