Karin Altenberg's "Island of Wings" is a beautifully told account of the thirteen years spent on the remote North Atlantic island of St Kilda by the church minister Neil Mackenzie and his wife Lizzie, who at the time of their arrival in 1830 is pregnant with their first child. Other than a new church and manse, they find an archipelago that has changed little in centuries, with inhabitants dependent almost wholly on seabirds for their food, and living in what the new arrivals view as squalid and primitive conditions.
Yet as the story develops you begin to wonder just who is the more "primitive". Is is a group of people who believe only superficially in the teachings of their new minister and who, despite living on a small group of isolated islands have just one boat and cannot swim? Or is it the minister, who is seeking to "improve" the spiritual life of his congregation and transform their approach to the land in line with reforms sweeping across Scotland at the time which cleared many thousand from their homes? And is the minister really seeking his parishioners' redemption or his own, as wider divisions in the Church of Scotland to which has devoted his life inexorably come to a head?
Parts of the story are told from the perspective of Neil Mackenzie, and we slowly begin to understand the demons that haunt him as he seeks to stamp his authority on the island. But if the book has a central character, it is Lizzie Mackenzie. Cut off from the islanders by an inability to speak Gaelic (and, apparently, by an unwillingness to consider the possibility of learning it); she also finds herself increasingly isolated from her husband as she comes to know him better. And meantime, as a backdrop to the personal and domestic dramas that are played out in the manse, we come to learn more about the society the Mackenzies found on St Kilda: and the rather different "improved" society Neil Mackenzie turns it into.
The book is a fictionalised account of real people and real historical events, set very convincingly against the superbly researched backdrop of St Kilda in the 1830s. It is tempting to ask yourself whether Mackenzie's influence caused the start of the demise of island society that led to the islanders asking to be evacuated in 1930. On balance he probably made little difference to the real long term sustainability of the community on the island.