“The Lost Lights of St Kilda” by Elisabeth Gifford is a beautifully written novel which gives a real sense of life in the first half of the last century in two different, but equally challenging, settings. The narrative alternates between 1927 and 1940, following the lives of its key characters in a way that ensures that the story flows beautifully.
Chrissie lives on the remote island group of St Kilda, in the Atlantic beyond the Western Isles, as part of a long-established but vulnerable and dwindling community. Many have already left the island in search of better lives and the remaining islanders increasingly struggle to provide everyone with food for the year. The traditional bird hunts and the farming and weaving that sustains the people and provides them with a meagre income is placing increasing pressure on the remaining, ageing, population. Add to the picture a particularly harsh winter and there is a real risk of people starving. Archie is the local laird’s son, a regular visitor to the island in his youth. He and Chrissie form a childhood friendship, which, as she grows, Chrissie hopes will blossom into love and marriage. So when Archie returns to the island in the summer of 1927, bringing with him his university friend Fred, Chrissie’s hopes are raised that she might finally get her man.
The summer that follows continues the story of the islanders interwoven with the lives of the incomers. The descriptions of daily life on St Kilda are exquisite and the building of the relationships between the key characters adds a poignancy. Local traditions are explained, we learn how the deep faith of the islanders is integral to the way they conduct their daily lives and we find out more about Chrissie, Archie and Fred. But just as the summer began, so it must end: and our three central characters have to part, the young men to return to university and their lives on the mainland, whilst Chrissie must settle back to island life. One thing is certain: their time together will have a lasting influence on all their lives.
The story shifts back and forth between St Kilda in 1927 and France in 1940. In France we follow the progress of Fred and Archie’s military involvement in the disastrous early period of the Second World War. Again, the story is beautifully told. When Fred escapes from captivity, his journey across enemy occupied territory is sustained by his hopes of finding his way back to Chrissie. Elisabeth Gifford has clearly researched her subject matter well. Nothing about “The Lost Lights of St Kilda” grates and the reader feels they are being given a true insight into the lives and times of Chrissie, Archie and Fred. We thoroughly enjoyed the book and the ending did not disappoint, nor did it seem contrived or rushed. This is clearly a work of great personal commitment and it is a book we'd very highly recommend.