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Island of Wings

About the Book

Island of Wings

The year is 1830, and newlyweds Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his young wife Lizzie have just arrived at St. Kilda to set up a new home and begin a mission. While the three rocky islands, sixteen miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, are not as far-flung as other colonial destinations of the day, they’re equally remote, and their inhabitants are equally foreign to the Scottish couple. Neil speaks Gaelic but Lizzie does not, and neither can be prepared for the culture shock that awaits them.

At first, both Lizzie and Neil find the native way of life --- dwelling in bird carcass-filled caves; subsisting on the abundant gannets, fulmars, and puffins both for food and other supplies; and performing pagan rituals --- more than distasteful, but Neil is optimistic that he will bring God and progress to the society. Lizzie, for her part, is pregnant and looking forward to starting a family in her clean mainland-style manse; she stands proudly behind her husband’s vision. Soon, however, Lizzie loses the baby, and then two more to the so-called eight-day illness, in which local newborns mysteriously cease to thrive.

The MacKenzies’ marriage is strained by grief, their increasing alienation from the outside world and the arrival of a shipwrecked sailor who Lizzie cares for. Neil, emotionally distant to begin with, becomes enraged and even more fixated on the gospel and his frustrations with the St. Kildans, who seem to cling to their own beliefs and culture, while Lizzie, craving connection, starts to develop empathy for them. Both their loyalty to each other and their religious faith is tested by the hardships of life on the exposed land where each new season brings new physical and mental challenges --- shortages of food, illness, grinding poverty. At the same time, the Scottish church is undergoing its own changes, and Neil must choose where he stands. As the years pass, the once-docile Lizzie begins to question her husband’s methods, her own happiness, and the meaning of the mission itself.

Based on records of an actual family and told with exacting historical detail, Swedish archaeologist Karin Altenberg’s debut novel is an insightful, arresting portrait of a marriage in isolation. St. Kilda’s unforgiving terrain, with its cruel landscape and bracing weather conditions, is described with lyrical grace and Altenberg fluidly moves between the points of view of her complex characters. Beautiful and harrowing, Island of Wings is an evocative exploration of what it means to be human.

Island of Wings
by Karin Altenberg

  • Publication Date: December 27, 2011
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143120662
  • ISBN-13: 9780143120667