House of Anansi, 2011

It’s with those proverbial good intentions that Reverend Neil MacKenzie moves to St. Kilda. (Oh, dear: you know the risk here, right?)

He is travelling there — accompanied by his young pregnant wife, Elizabeth — to bring his faith to the island’s residents.

(Think The Poisonwood Bible, but with a seascape instead of sandy soil, and a linear narrative, in which the birds outnumber the residents by far.)

“There is no other place in the Empire as remote as St Kilda, and the inhabitants are as savage as the naked blacks in the King’s territories in Australia.”

That’s how one Good Colonial Man describes it. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder, right?

(And the reader, as beholder, is treated to a full sensory experience of island life, rooted in the author’s experience of many summers spent exploring rocky archipelagos.)

Confronted with the harsh beauty of the landscape and the remarkable customs of the natives, another visitor is overwhelmingly impressed, not by savagery but by community. Here is what the young onlooker sees:

“Here is a web of rights, powers and obligations that protects the citizens. Men exist in harmony with nature and keep the peace amongst each other through a simple system of governing and loyalty.”

George Atkinson is staying with the MacKenzie family (it’s only right that visitors stay in the manse, now that there is one, although the residents have, in the past, had no trouble accommodating visitors).

But it’s almost immediately clear that his perspective stands in stark contrast to that of his host.

“Believe me, Mr Atkinson, when I say that I know these islands better than you do. What they need is sophisticated guidance from men with experience of the greater world. And they need to ask God’s forgiveness so that He may listen to their prayers.”

And it’s also immediately clear that the Reverend is as disinterested in his wife’s contributions to the conversation as he is in discussing the merits of the St Kildans’ community.

As much as Island of Wings is about the difficult relationship between mythic tradition and religious missionary zeal, it is also the story of a marriage.

The novel opens with a deckhand calling Elizabeth to come to her husband’s side. She had been “deeply immersed in something, a drowning or a dream” but responds to his call.

The push-and-pull of their relationship is a constant throughout the narrative. In an interview with Caroline Butler, Karin Altenberg states that the marriage was intended to be at the heart of her work.

“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.”

That balance between drowning and dreaming, between vulnerability and power, is also at the heart of the narrative.

Orange Prize Season 2012

The use of language and structure is simple, but the images are powerful; rooted in the natural world, they contribute to the sense that these struggles are not relevant to any particular historical period but to living experience.

“The chicks were still covered in white down, but the adult feathers of a steely blue-grey were starting to come through on their backs. They looked very vulnerable, with their disproportionately large feet and blinking eyes. The young St Kildans made a bed of their woolen scarves for them in one of the egg baskets and covered it with a basket lid.”

Those young St Kildans look down on the chicks, just as the Reverend looks down on the sea many years later in the narrative.

He has travelled to Bearradh na h-Eige, and he has positioned himself at the edge of the cliff, with a view of the vertical drop into the sea 600 feet below.

“He lay down on his stomach and looked over the edge into the clear sea. Far below, the swell sighed in and out of the caves. As he stared into the clear green waters he saw the dark shape of a killer whale. The silent predator was gliding towards a group of young grey seals, some of whom had not yet shed their snow-white puppy skins. They were oblivious to the threat as they played amongst the sea caves and underwater rocks. How amazing to be allowed to watch nature from above. Is this how God looks down upon us? he wondered. He watched with dispassionate interest as the killer whale closed in on its young prey.”

Island of Wings rests on a web of subtly interwoven imagery that contributes to a twinned sense of being somewhere completely new and wholly familiar at the same time; Karin Altenberg’s literary creation is solid, her story is moving, and my Orange Prize reading for this season is off to a grand start.

ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 1 of 20
Karin Altenberg’s Island of Wings

Originality Has anyone set a novel on the islands of St Kilda before?
Readability  If comfortable reading historical fiction, the reader will be immediately engaged
Author’s voice Consistently and assuredly told from above, a bird’s eye view
Narrative structure No tricks, chronologically told from 1830 to 1843
Gaffes None spotted (okay, one teeny tiny typo, but that’s it)
Expectations Though her academic writing has been acclaimed, this is her first novel

Companion Reads:
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (2009)
Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country (2011)
Sadie Jones’ Small Wars (2009)