Island of Wings: A Novel

Island of Wings: A Novel

3.4 7
by Karin Altenberg

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A dazzling debut novel of love and loss, faith and atonement, on an untamed nineteenth-century Scottish island.

Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of extreme hardship and unearthly beauty. Everything lies ahead for

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A dazzling debut novel of love and loss, faith and atonement, on an untamed nineteenth-century Scottish island.

Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of extreme hardship and unearthly beauty. Everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie when they arrive at the St. Kilda islands in July of 1830. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie-bright, beautiful, and devoted-is pregnant with their first child. As the two adjust to life at the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and babies perish mysteriously, their marriage-and their sanity-are soon threatened.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Swedish-born archeologist Altenberg imagines the internal struggles of two historical figures in her debut. In the summer of 1830, Rev. Neil MacKenzie and his wife, Lizzie, set sail for the island of St. Kilda. The couple is young and hopeful: Lizzie, pregnant and adoring her new husband; Neil, deeply spiritual and confident in his mission. Though St. Kilda is off the coast of Scotland, the MacKenzies step into a world completely foreign. The Gaelic-speaking natives live in filth and squalor, yet in perfect harmony with one another. Neil’s need to convert the idyllic natives becomes highly ironic, and he sees in Lizzie’s unfortunate miscarriage a grave trespass. As Lizzie battles loneliness and despair, Neil throws himself into converting the islanders (more for himself than for them), and the novel darkens. Altenberg’s book is deeply entrenched in historical detail, vivid in its descriptions of geography, and more successful as anthropological history than novel. A late passage, however, creates a moving portrait of the couple greatly changed by their hardships. Incorporating the politics of the creation of the Free Church out of the Church of Scotland, the story shows the limits of love and devotion—in people and in faith. Agent: Rogers, Coleridge & White. (Jan.)
Library Journal
When young Church of Scotland minister Neil MacKenzie arrives with his wife, Lizzie, on the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda in 1830, he intends to strengthen the residents' Christian faith and modernize their way of life. The remote, treeless islands house thousands of seabirds that provide much of the local food and influence numerous customs. Determined to set an example of righteousness and haunted by guilt over a friend he let drown, Neil fears expressing love for anyone, even his wife and children. Although he can communicate with residents in their native Gaelic and Lizzie knows only English, she achieves greater empathy, particularly with the women after she loses three babies. Lizzie finds companionship with an English-speaking girl hired to help her and later is drawn dangerously close to a shipwrecked sailor she nurses back to health. VERDICT Based on documentary sources, this evocative debut novel enmeshes readers in a society that no longer exists, on rugged Scottish islands few tourists visit. Complex characters and historical events that impact the lives of the islanders provide much to ponder and discuss. A fine book club candidate.—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato
Kirkus Reviews
A fictionalized account of 19th-century Scotsman Neil MacKenzie as he and his wife convert the natives of St. Kilda. In many ways this is the proverbial story of colonization--an earnest, naïve minister is sent to a distant shore to save souls and promote the Empire's notion of modernity. What makes MacKenzie's story so singular is that St. Kilda is located no more than 40 miles off the coast of Scotland, inhabited for 1,000 years by Gaelic-speaking Norsemen. When MacKenzie and his young wife Lizzie arrive in the summer of 1830, though they are to live in the newly constructed manse, they are shocked by the primitive conditions of the islanders. Shod in rags and island wool, the St. Kildans live in turf huts (in which every kind of waste is layered into the floor during winter) and only one in three children survive past their first week. The tax man (the island belongs to a laird on the mainland) comes a few times per year to collect his revenue in feathers and drop off supplies, but generally the islanders live in isolation. MacKenzie begins by drilling the catechism and in true British fashion comes up with a scheme to improve island productivity. As Neil is occupied with the St. Kildans, Lizzie lives in a solitude more profound than the islanders. Unlike her husband she speaks no Gaelic, and so must wait years for company when finally a maid is sent from the mainland. As the years progress Neil and Lizzie, devoted as newlyweds, fall into an icy truce. Before a kind of desperate madness transforms Neil into that familiar Kurtz-like figure, he manages to rebuild the village and divide the shared farmland. For the communal St. Kildans, whose interdependence is vital, this new scheme of individuality has dire consequences. In this winning debut, Altenberg, a trained archaeologist, brings a subtle voice to this odd bit of history, in which faith and marriage are no match for isolation.

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
File size:
349 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Karin Altenberg is senior advisor to the Swedish National Heritage Board and is a fellow of the Linnean Society. She is currently at work on her second novel. She lives in London.

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Island of Wings 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
lsmeadows More than 1 year ago
I have been a history buff since the dawn of time, or at least since I first read the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I fell in love with being able to live life as others did, even if it was vicariously. I picked this book because the New Hebrides Islands were an area that I had never explored before, which intrigued me. I had read many books about and taking place in Scotland, but never anything in this particular area. The first thing that amazed me about this book was the author's portarayal of the lives of the Islanders and how bleak it was. The next amazing thing was that the Reverend McNeil and his wife were actaul historical characters, and not just fictional characters that the author used to describe the story. The story of the lives of the Reverend and his wife was fascinating, as was the underlying history. There were many characters that engendered both interest and sympathy. In short, I was not disappointed in Karin Altenbergs portrayal of the lives of The Reverend McNeil and his wife, their time on the Island of St. Kilda, and the lives of the Islanders. As with a lot of the good historical fiction that I have read, this book has enticed me to read and learn more about the Reverend McNeil, the Island of St. Kilda, and the changes in the Church of Scotland that were occurring at this time. In my mind there is no higher praise than that.
TurningThePagesBlog More than 1 year ago
M first love is history, I had to sit through hours and hours of The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel etc. as a kid thanks to my dad so unlike a lot of other kids, I actually love history. This has translated into a great love for historical fiction and while you haven't seen me review a lot of these titles don't worry :) The reviews are coming I'm just trying to branch out an explore other genres. I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I was kind of hesitant to read it because I learned that the book wasn't originally published in English and sometimes when a novel gets translated things get translation. Sorry, I had to say it. Anyways, I was a little concerned but I quickly realized my fears were misplaced. Karin Altenberg has written a beautiful novel that is based on a real man Neil McKenzie who really was a reverend on the Island of St. Kilda. I thought that Karin did a fantastic job for getting the tone of her novel perfect. In my opinion she did an excellent job of recreating life during that time. Most of all I love how you could sense that she wrote every word with conviction. The author also has a gift at creating characters that actually evoke emotions. Lizzie, Neil's young wife was my favourite character. I hated how Neil treated her and made her feel weak and stupid. However I'm glad to see that she grew as a character throughout the whole novel. I felt so bad for her. She's thrust into a new life, on an isolate island where her husband is the only one that can speak English with her, she's also coming to terms with her impending motherhood and struggling to find the real Lizzie. I personally HATED Neil. The way he treated Lizzie was abhorrent to me and the fact that he treated her so poorly to make up for his own mistakes sickened me. However, just because I hate Neil and wanted to strangle him at several points in the book I feel that Karin wrote him very realistically. I did not agree with Neil much throughout the book if ever. I know that he went to St. Kilda with good intentions but I think he failed the islanders in a lot of ways. Most of all I hated how he looked down on them from his holier than thou pedestal that he placed himself on. It really irritated me but it worked for the novel as a whole. I also enjoyed the setting. I felt as if I were actually in the places where scenes in the book took place. She was descriptive without overdoing it and that enabled her to write the scenes beautifully. It's wonderful to find an author who is skilled at making the reader feel as if they are present in the novel. I think that this book was rich in history and though I didn't always see eye to eye with Neil I think that Karin Altenberg is extremely adept at creating characters, she makes them so realistic you can't help but admire her skill in writing. The novel as a whole is a great example of a debut author writing a fantastic piece of historical fiction. I would have absolutely no problem recommending this book to anyone. I especially recommend it to lovers of historical fiction and those who may be new to the genre. It's great book and is now one of my new favourites. I can see myself reading this one again and again. *I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my freehonest review.
new-hampshire-reader More than 1 year ago
It is a long and somewhat boring tale. The is no real plot, I have 50 pages left to read and I still have not figured out why the author wrote the book. I do not recommend it, I am struggling to get to the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a great read but I muddled through.
Anonymous 16 days ago
Highly recommended. Based on facts, the novel is about Lizzie and Neil MacKenzie and his mission on St. Kilda Island. The novel includes: death, sanity and insanity, babies, squalor, understanding and misunderstanding. This book deserves an A+++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started out slowly amd continued
Anonymous More than 1 year ago