Island of Wings is one of the books on the Orange Prize long-list that I was really looking forward to reading. It's set in 1830 when Reverend Neil McKenzie and his wife Lizzie set sail for the desolate islands of St Kilda from the Hebrides. Neil is tasked with winning the local population round to Christianity and away from their 'Pagan' traditions. Neil is also running away from a difficult past and Lizzie is leaving behind everything she knows. They are both tested in the harsh environment of their new home.
I went into this book thinking that I would love it. And whilst there were elements about it I very much enjoyed, Island of Wings fell short of my expectations. To start with the positives, it was obvious that Alternberg had really done her research - I knew nothing about St Kilda before starting the book but almost felt as if I had visited it myself after closing it. I was very interested in the lives of the residents of St Kilda, especially the high rate of infant mortality (up to 80%) due to neonatal tetanus. Their whole lifestyle was fascinating, as was watching the lengths Neil had to go to in order to convert them to Christianity. The basic bones of the story were decent and events played out well.
But for some reason, the book just didn't click. The writing felt very awkward in places, especially towards the beginning of the novel. There were multiple persepective shifts within each chapter with no line breaks or signalling, which made the reading experience jarring. One minute I was deep in Neil's crisis of regret, the next in Lizzie's mind pondering what guests will think of her house. My example is extreme, but I really do like clear signs of perspective change and don't like constantly having to work out who is thinking what.
Another thing that bothered me was how Lizzie lived on the island for well over twelve years but never learned any Gaelic, meaning she couldn't communicate with the natives at all. Surely she would have picked it up over time? All in all, Island of Wings was an evocative book with a good story that taught me a lot about a different place but it was let down by an awkward writing style. It's Karin Altenberg's debut novel and the promise of the story means I would definitely read her future books.
Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011Score: 3 out of 5
The obvious comparison is with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. This also features a minister visiting a harsh environment (the Congo). It's one of my all time favourite books, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to read Island of Wings.