The backstory: Island of Wings, the debut novel by Karin Altenberg, was on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.
The basics: Neil Mackenzie, a young minister, and his new wife Lizzie move to the remote island of St. Kilda in 1830. This passage from the first few pages sets the stage beautifully: "Mr. Bethune said gleefully. 'There is no other place in the Empire as remote as St. Kilda, and the inhabitant are as savage as the naked blacks in the King's territories in Australia. I know nothing of their faith, but I tell you this: I'm happy as long as they pay their taxes so that my Lord of the Isles can sleep well in a feather bed.'"
My thoughts: On days like this one, when the temperature will be near 100 degrees, I often joke I would not make a good pioneer woman. Thanks to Island of Wings, I can now also say, I would not make a good minister's wife in 1830's St. Kilda. Fiction transports us to different times and places, but I found with this novel, which I enjoyed very much, I didn't want to be transported to St. Kilda to share in this experience. Instead, I wanted to be a very distant third party and watch a film of it happening.
Altenberg painted St. Kilda quite vividly, but it was so foreign to me, I still found myself seeking visuals of the island, its people, and its customs following passages like this one: "They often make shoes out of the necks of gannets--they cut the head off at the eyes, and the part where the skull serves as the heel of the shoe and the feathers on the throat offer warmth and waterproofing. They generally last a couple of days, but at times there are so many birds that they can wear these disposable socks almost daily." At times, this novel read like non-fiction, but in a good way: I learned so much about this island and its people. While the story of Lizzie and Neil was also good, it wasn't as riveting as the story of St. Kilda.
Favorite passage: "These men are not just living in primitive simplicity--they are as free as most enlightened people can ever dream to be! If St. Kilda is not the Utopia we have sought so long, where will it be found?"
The verdict: Island of Wings is a glimpse into a fascinating place and time. St. Kilda is the true main character, and I remain intrigued by its place in history.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 322 pages
Publication date: December 27, 2011 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher via NetGalley
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