Island of Wings

Island of Wings

Book - 2012
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Arriving in the St. Kilda islands in 1830 to serve as a minister to the small community, Neil McKenzie and his pregnant wife, Lizzie, struggle with life and their marriage in a climate that is beautiful but also extremely difficult.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2012
ISBN: 9780143120667
Branch Call Number: FICTION
Characteristics: 311 p. : ill., map ; 21 cm


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Apr 05, 2016

Historical novels sometimes create wonderful pictures of another place and time. It was with this in mind that I read Island of Wings, a novel about a minister's wife on the isolated island of St. Kilda, located in the Atlantic Ocean, fifty miles west of North Uist in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. A distant relative in Cape Breton once told me that a branch of my ancestors was originally from St. Kilda. I've seen online photographs from the late 19th century that further aroused my curiosity. On that basis, I decided to read this novel, written by Karin Altenberg, a Swedish archaeologist who'd explored both St. Kilda and its written history.

Island of Wings did, in fact, contain fascinating social history and descriptions of the environment, and told how its 19th-century residents survived in this inhospitable place. However, as a novel, it was awkward and weak. I only made it to the end, because of my familial/historical interest. Although some reviewers seem to like Island of Wings, I'm not sure to whom I can recommend it. Perhaps some readers of historical-romance might enjoy it; there's a bodice-ripping scene with an (unlikely) swashbuckling stranger.

However, Altenberg's writing is clunky, with great gaps in logic, not likely to appeal to a discerning reader of literary fiction. To begin with, Lizzie, the main character is a minister's wife, who speaks only English. Her husband is a bilingual, English-and-Gaelic speaker. All the other residents of St. Kilda, speak only Gaelic. In her eleven years on the island, Lizzie does not absorb enough Gaelic to say "How do you do?" or "Thank you." Although her husband gets her a bilingual maid from the mainland, it doesn't occur to him, Lizzie, the maid, their St. Kildan children, or their neighbours that Lizzie might learn some Gaelic. Furthermore, Lizzie, who has not shown herself to be bold or reckless, after hearing stories of women being attacked on the island, sees a light in an outbuilding at night, and enters without hesitation, alone and unarmed. Regarding character development, English-speaking visitors to the Island are fleshed out for the few pages before they disappear from the book, while the islanders, except for three or four slightly-developed characters, comprise an indistinguishable mass called "the natives." (Am I detecting still-present European colonial attitudes?) If you notice and question such things, this book is not for you.

Altenberg's writing is verbose and stumbling; at times I wondered if writers in the UK are still paid by the word as they were in Dickens's day. We may excuse Altenberg, who has English as a second language, but she does thank an editor -- would that be the same editor who allows a visitor to the island to throw away a "contemptuous dress" that has been soiled? Altenberg's one attempt at humour, a scene in which a woman gets stuck in a highly embarrassing predicament, should be hilarious but doesn't work. (And, not important but an irritation to Canadians, is that in a passing reference, Altenberg places Quebec's Megantic in Cape Breton.)

As I said, some reviewers like this book, but I was able to plod through only for the social history. However, if you can breeze through a novel without questioning anything, and consider the following sentence to be an example of good, descriptive writing, you might enjoy Island of Wings: "Mrs. MacKenzie's cheeks were the roses of a young girl's and her eyes were shining for the company that she would keep" (117).

Jun 21, 2014

This novel is a wonderful portrayal of life on St. Kilda in the 19th century. Attenberg captures the texture and beauty of life in the Western Isles. I particularly liked the ever present birds, including skuas! It is also the story of a marriage and loss of faith.

gracindaisy May 08, 2012

In the 1830’s, a minister & his new wife are sent to a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Life there is harsh - the island is inhabited mainly by birds as well as a small community of native islanders.


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