Friday, 23 March 2012

Orange 2012: Island of wings (Karin Altenberg)

I got a bit confused about Island of Wings as I was picking up a number of reservations at the library, a mix of Orange titles and non Orange titles and I thought that this was a non Orange title. I gulped it down in a great enjoyable rush and then spent the next day emailing everyone to tell them that whatever Orange books they read, they should read this one because it wasn't on the longlist but should have been. Oops. Given that my experience of Orange this year seems to mainly have been an unremitting ploughing through of titles (and I'm not done yet, there are still some big names to come), I'm happy to have read an Orange book by accident as a "light" in between other Orange longlist titles.

I say "light", but the plot and characters of Island of Wings do not exactly make for light reading. Compelling and unputdownable are more accurate adjectives.

This is the story of the minister Neil Mackensie and his new wife Lizzie who arrive on the Isle of St Kilda with the aim of saving the lives of its pagan inhabitants. It is the remotest part of the British Isles, a harsh environment where the majority of the population live in hovels, little partly underground dwellings lacking furniture, and absolutely reeking. Neil and Lizzie are somewhat distanced from this inhabiting a more civilised manse, but still find themselves affected by the environment. One affliction of the area is a 60% infant mortality rate; Lizzie loses her first children too.

Whilst Neil is focussed on the conversion of his neighbours and redeeming their ignorant minds, Lizzie learns to accept their lifestyles and embrace the community. But as he becomes increasingly authoritative, he turns this attitude on his marriage too, and the book is as much a portrayal of a marriage as it is of a community.

The description of the island is really vivid and although I have never visited that part of the world I had a very clear picture in my imagination of what it looked like. I'm a lazy reader and it can take a lot to provoke pictures in my head, but this book was able to achieve that.

It's a bit reminiscent of The poisonwood bible, it's years since I read that book, but similar themes crop up and I remember being equally enthralled by it.

I did not realise until I reached the end and read the afterword by the author that this was based on real people and real events. The dreadful loss of so many babies on the island to "eight day" death was probably caused by tetanus, rife where the bodies of dead animals were ploughed back into the ground and high standards of cleanliness in the implements used to cut the umbilical cord were lacking.

This is the Orange title that I have been most gripped by in the last fortnight. Seek it out, and be glad that it is on the Orange longlist or it might not have come to your attention. I'm not convinced it will make the shortlist, but oh, I hope that it does. If not, take my advice and read it.


  1. I agree. I'm half way through this book and it is the most engaging, gripping read I've found on the Orange list so far too.

    1. Have you read State of wonder yet? That's the only one to come close for me so far...

    2. I wasn't a big fan of State of Wonder and abandoned it at the half way stage. Don't know why it didn't click with me as I know so many others loved it.

  2. Verity, your description of black houses makes them sound even less appealing than they apparently were.I keep picking this one up in shops and then putting it down. Might buy it next time now.

  3. Out of the 5 titles I have read so far (I know, I'm slow), I definitely liked this one best too.

  4. Hi Verity,
    I was looking for some information about this book and I've just discovered your review. Thanks a lot for sharing with us!
    Now I'm going to buy the novel. Anyhow I'm obsessed by St Kilda and have already read a couple of books about these remote isles, really fascinating (by Tom Steel and Charles MacLean, both worth reading).

    By the way, I'm German and my 2nd best hobby after reading is BAKING ;o)

    Greetings to England,


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