2011 Orange Prize

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Island of Wings Longlisted for 2012 Orange Prize

Five words from the blurb: islands, family, love, minister, hardship

Island of Wings is set on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda and focuses on Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, a young couple who arrived on the island in 1830. Neil MacKenzie is a minister who aimed to improve the lives of the islanders by building better houses and by trying to quash their pagan practices. The book describes the difficulties faced by the couple as they adjusted to life on an island plagued by famine and high infant mortality.  

The main appeal of the book is the way it describes what life on St Kilda was like 180 years ago. Much of the plot is based on actual events and the historical facts were well researched. There were a few dramatic scenes, but the realism meant that plot was often quiet and insular. 

The population relied on sea birds for almost everything and their uses were described in graphic detail:

George was appalled to see a girl of about four or five years old trying to pull the neck of a gannet over her foot as a stocking. The minister followed his gaze and explained. ‘They often make shoes out of the necks of gannets – they cut the head off at the eyes, and the part where the skull was serves as the heel of the shoe and the feathers on the throat offer warmth and waterproofing. They generally only last a couple of days, but at times there are so many birds that they can wear these disposable socks almost daily.’

I found these little details really interesting, but I suspect that others may tire of these facts and long for a more compelling plot.

The book was very easy to read, flowing smoothly from beginning to end. The subject matter was occasionally dark, but the atmosphere remained light so the reader was distanced from any pain and suffering that occurred. I would have preferred a greater emotional attachment to the characters, but the writing style did create an atmosphere fitting with the remoteness of the island, so I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

Island of Wings gripped me throughout. It was an entertaining read that gave a fascinating insight into this small community.



The thoughts of other bloggers:

A beautiful story, it portrays a difficult, rugged life with delicacy. Trees and Ink

Island of Wings is very much an interior portrait – within the island, within the marriage – and at times the closeness of the story becomes almost claustrophobic….  Books Under the Skin

This is the Orange title that I have been most gripped by in the last fortnight…. Cardigangirlverity

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