Island of Wings – Karin Altenberg
Review copy from the publisher
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Island of Wings is the story of Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, who find themselves at the remotest part of the British Isles: St Kilda, on a mission to Christianise the “pagan” inhabitants. Lizzie, pregnant and newly married, speaks no Gaelic and feels lonely on the island with only the sea and the birds for company. Neil, meanwhile, loses himself in his work to try to overcome guilt from his past.
Some of you may know that I specialised in mission history during my master education. So, whereas I saw some bloggers express doubt about the subject matter of Island of Wings, it was the very mention of mission that made this one of the most anticipated books on the longlist to me. And I can safely say that I was not disappointed at all. Actually, it might be the book I enjoyed best out of the 5 longlisted books I have read thus far.
I admit that part of my enjoyment of this novel has to do with the fact that Karin Altenberg got so many aspects right. I could not help but think that this was what I’d look for in a fictional account of a missionary, even without knowing that I was looking for it per se.
Neil MacKenzie is a zealous missionary, determined to Christianise the inhabitants of St Kilda, but also working towards improving their circumstances to, in his own words, “modern” standards. But throughout the book you learn that his calling may not be for the St. Kildans alone, and is partly found in a wish to right what he believes God may think a personal sin of his. And whenever things do not go to plan on the island, he suffers from self-doubt and the belief that God is punishing him for his sins. Neil is not exactly likeable, as he soon becomes so wrapped up in his work that he often forgets the humanity and circumstances of those around him, but neither is he described as “the big bad missionary”, which is a trope I have come across in literature before. I liked that there was depth to his character.
Lizzie MacKenzie is a character I did feel for, and I think the reader is supposed to feel this way. From the very first it is obvious to the reader that Neil did not think to include Lizzie in his missionary scheme. Instead, she is left at home, without knowledge of the language, alone on an island she does not know. But Lizzie develops friendships with some of the people on the island. And in between her loneliness, we see Neil’s zealousness contrasted with Lizzie’s more human understanding of the people and their needs. Neil, of course, does not appreciate Lizzie’s share in his work, but throughout the book, you learn about “the wife of..” and her important role in the work.
Island of Wings has been praised as a post-colonial novel that is set in the British Isles. In an interview, Karin Altenberg responded that she set out to write a novel about a marriage, that this was to be the core of the story, but that through that story, she was able to show some of the ideas of the Scottish enlightenment and its influence on the Isles and colonialism, as well as to make visible the invisible women of history:
“The story of the relationship was always going to be at the centre of the novel. I am intrigued by all the silent, faceless women in history who followed men around the world. Lizzie would obviously have had a mind of her own but her actual possibilities to change her situation in the 1830s would have been limited – I wanted to stay true to history in that sense.”
And this is exactly what she does. She gives a missionary’s wife a voice, a voice that has often been overlooked in history. And while she gives Lizzie agency, that agency does not become unrealistic, as Lizzie remains a woman caught in a marriage that is not always happy.
Altenberg also gives voice to the class differences prevalent at the time, through featuring Betty Scott, who works for the MacKenzie’s as a maid for a few years before marrying someone from the island. Betty sometimes reminds Lizzie, to her face, that she has presumptions about the lower classes, but she also becomes one of Lizzie’s closest friends on the island. And through that, Betty becomes a sort of spokesperson for the islanders in the novel, and enables Lizzie to talk to more of the women of St. Kilda. There is an interesting dynamic there that I could not help but appreciate.
The scenery of St. Kilda, captured in the centrality of the sea and the birds, also plays a prominent role in the novel. There’s a dynamic between the beauty of the island and the “savage” circumstances that Neil feels he has to “civilise”. There are passages in which the inhabitants of St Kilda are compared to the “savage (…) native blacks in the King’s territories in Australia”. Passages that make a modern reader cringe, but that I believe would be accurate descriptions of the perceptions of both Neil and Lizzie. But there is also a sense of romanticising the wilderness of the island. And most of all, there is a definite feeling of place, of circumstances, of specific needs.
Having finished the novel, having realised that it featured so much of what I would have liked to see in a novel about a missionary’s life, not least of all because it features those supporting Neil: his wife, a servant, St. Kildans who help Neil in his daily work, instead of lightly stepping over their contributions as Neil himself tends to do in the novel (and history has done all too often).. On finishing those last pages, I found out that Altenberg based Island of Wings on the lives of two actual people, the Reverent MacKenzie and his wife. That part of the novel is based on thorough historical research.
I admit, a week after finishing Island of Wings, I am still a little caught up in feeling in awe of what Karin Altenberg managed to achieve, in a second language (as Swedish is her first). Knowing how difficult the subject of mission is to navigate as a historian, I appreciate all that she did with it as a writer of fiction.
All of this is not to say that you need to be interested in the history of mission to enjoy the novel. Actually, I think you very well may enjoy it despite its setting. Because in between those things I appreciated in Island of Wings as a novel about mission, Island of Wings as a novel about St Kilda, and Island of Wings as a novel about women and marriage in the 1830′s, has much, and perhaps even more, to offer the reader.
Other opinions: Lizzy’s Literary Life, Cardigan Girl Verity, Buried in Print, Books Under Skin, Ex Libris, Trees and Ink, Farm Lane Books Blog.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.
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