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Island of Wings
Karin Altenberg
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INTRODUCTION

The year is 1830, and newlyweds Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his young wife Lizzie have just arrived at St. Kilda to set up a new home and begin a mission. While the three rocky islands, sixteen miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, are not as far–flung as other colonial destinations of the day, they’re equally remote, and their inhabitants are equally foreign to the Scottish couple. Neil speaks Gaelic but Lizzie does not, and neither can be prepared for the culture shock that awaits them.

At first, both Lizzie and Neil find the native way of life—dwelling in bird carcass–filled caves; subsisting on the abundant gannets, fulmars, and puffins both for food and other supplies; and performing pagan rituals—more than distasteful, but Neil is optimistic that he will bring God and progress to the society. Lizzie, for her part, is pregnant and looking forward to starting a family in her clean mainland–style manse; she stands proudly behind her husband’s vision. Soon, however, Lizzie loses the baby, and then two more to the so–called eight–day illness, in which local newborns mysteriously cease to thrive.

The MacKenzies’ marriage is strained by grief, their increasing alienation from the outside world and the arrival of a shipwrecked sailor who Lizzie cares for. Neil, emotionally distant to begin with, becomes enraged and even more fixated on the gospel and his frustrations with the St. Kildans, who seem to cling to their own beliefs and culture, while Lizzie, craving connection, starts to develop empathy for them. Both their loyalty to each other and their religious faith is tested by the hardships of life on the exposed land where each new season brings new physical and mental challenges—shortages of food, illness, grinding poverty. At the same time, the Scottish church is undergoing its own changes, and Neil must choose where he stands. As the years pass, the once–docile Lizzie begins to question her husband’s methods, her own happiness, and the meaning of the mission itself.

Based on records of an actual family and told with exacting historical detail, Swedish archaeologist Karin Altenberg’s debut novel is an insightful, arresting portrait of a marriage in isolation. St. Kilda’s unforgiving terrain, with its cruel landscape and bracing weather conditions, is described with lyrical grace and Altenberg fluidly moves between the points of view of her complex characters. Beautiful and harrowing, Island of Wings is an evocative exploration of what it means to be human.


ABOUT KARIN ALTENBERG

Karin Altenberg

Born in southern Sweden, Karin Altenberg moved to Britain in 1996 to get her Ph.D. in archaeology from University of Reading. Her thesis was published in 2001 and won the Nordenstedska Foundation Award. Island of Wings is her first novel, and she is currently working on her second



A CONVERSATION WITH KARIN ALTENBERG

Q. Island of Wings is a fictionalized account of a historical family who lived in St. Kilda in the 1830s. How did you come across this family and why did you decide to write about them?

Several years ago an archaeologist friend told me about an excavation she had taken part in on Hirta, the main island in the St. Kilda archipelago. I was intrigued by her account of the storm–tossed island in the Atlantic and started reading about the cultural and natural history of the islands. Neil MacKenzie soon turned up in the historical sources—he seemed to be generally considered to have been an important figure in St. Kilda’s history. I found some notes about the St. Kildans and the bird life on the island written in Mackenzie’s hand. My image and portrait of him grew out of his own writing. Lizzie (Elizabeth MacKenzie, nee Crawford), on the other hand, was only mentioned a couple of times in all the sources I came across; once by George Atkinson who described her as somebody who “made an agreeable cup of tea” and once by another visitor who wrote that the minister’s wife kept her children clean and well–dressed. Lizzie, then, is one of the faceless, voiceless handmaidens of history and I suppose I just wanted to bring her to life and give her a voice. And so my research project eventually turned into a novel. I was quite surprised at first but in hindsight I realize that I always wanted to write about islands; I grew up part of the year on an island off the west coast of Sweden and that landscape shaped my sensibilities from an early age. Many of the smells and scents in my depiction of St. Kilda are probably derived from the island of my childhood.

Q. In what ways did you use your skills and background as an archaeologist to write this book?

Archaeology to me is concerned with curiosity about human nature and about humans and their interaction with the surrounding world. The physical remains of human life forms a link to a lost mentality. As a landscape archaeologist I was trained—and I trained myself—in reading landscapes and, as with any other language, once you have acquired it you cannot ignore it; its structures, syllables, and tones become part of who you are. To me features in the landscape are as informative as billboards in the city—only often more subtle and pleasing to the eye. The past offers a constructive backdrop for a novel—it is a blank page that no one can lay claims on and where one’s imagination can be allowed to re–create a version of history which becomes universal in time and space.

Q. The rhythm and syntax of the language in the novel seem to echo the writings from the era in which it’s set. Did this stem from your research for the novel or was it more of a creative decision? Was it difficult to write that way or did it come naturally?

Setting a novel in the past (or the future, for that matter) offers great freedom, especially for someone like me who does not have English as a first language. I could explore creative writing without worrying too much about the pace and punch of contemporary dialogue. The tone came naturally, partly influenced by the historical sources and documents I was reading and partly by research into early nineteenth–century fiction—but my ambition was never to imitate a specific historical syntax. So, to answer the question, it was partly a creative and linguistic decision and partly due to the nature of my research. In the end, though, the narrative and dialogue came naturally to me—I would not have wanted my characters to have spoken in any other way.

Q. In Neil, you really seem to get inside the missionary mind, in which the idea of bringing Christianity to the islanders is part of the “natural” flow of progress. Was there anything that surprised you about seeing the world through his eyes?

I was surprised at his lack of imagination and the lack of compassion that often walks hand in hand with it—it is as if he does not dare to open himself up to the world and to other people. He is a brilliant, good man with a taste for adventure and achievement but he lacks insight and this makes him rather blunt (and sometimes cruel), both as a man and as an “instrument of God.” Neil’s mission has as much to do with progress as it has with religion. He is a product his times: of the Scottish enlightenment, of industrialism and of the Clearances—a shift in land use that destroyed communities and forced thousands of people to emigrate to Canada and the United States. Neil’s view of the world and its time is linear—the future must be an improvement of the past and it is his responsibility to bring the St. Kildans into the modern world—their traditional way of life is an evil abomination to him. To the St. Kildans, on the other hand, time is cyclic and rhythmic rather than linear; they live by the seasons and by the coming and going of birds. Their perception of past and present is confused; the ancestors who built the houses are still very much part of the community and the death of a child is a communal rather than a personal disaster. The future, if the St. Kildans could imagine it at all, would be in the same shape as the past and would yield no particular possibilities or surprises. A lifetime on St. Kilda, the here and now, was as much a spatial as a temporal concept and it is difficult to say what their idea of an afterlife might have been—it certainly was not the same as Neil McKenzie’s!

Q. The landscape is a powerful presence in this novel—it sets the physical and emotional atmosphere, and it’s also an important part of the plot as the seasons come and go on the island. How did you get to know St. Kilda? Was your empathy for the place present from the earliest drafts or did it evolve with your writing?

I sailed to St. Kilda in 2007. It was important to me to reach the island in the same manner as Neil and Lizzie would have reached it 180 years previously. It is a truly extraordinary place—almost otherworldly. The archipelago, an extinct volcano, seems to have its own weather system as the clouds over the Atlantic gather around the highest sea cliffs and stacks in Europe. There is no pollution and colors change as abruptly as the sun comes and goes. St. Kilda is a double (natural and cultural) UNESCO World Heritage site. The birds are everywhere and their individual calls and cackle is all you hear above the wind as you draw closer to the islands. Spending some time on Hirta (the main island) and circumnavigating the archipelago certainly gave me a necessary feel for the place—I could not have written Island of Wings without visiting it. While writing the novel I noticed that the island itself took on more of a role than I had expected, but I soon realized that, in a setting where man is second to nature, place itself becomes a character in the plot.

Q. This novel presents some critical views of Christianity. Do you hope that your novel sparks some discussion about religion?

This is a difficult question for me to answer. I am an agnostic and I would probably call myself an atheist if I did not believe that it would be a grave mistake to be absolutely certain about anything. I did not

set out to be critical about Christianity as such, but I am opposed to dogmatism, perhaps especially in its religious form. Whereas religion itself fascinates me in many ways (and I love the accouterments of it), faith is a concept that I can actually relate to. For that reason I wanted my book to be about faith rather than religion—to some extent I think Lizzie has faith whereas Neil hasn’t. The St. Kildans, on the other hand, are more pragmatic and this is another thing Neil just cannot get his head around.

Q. You capture so beautifully the very hair trigger nature of relationships and how quickly love can turn into hostility. How did you tap into these emotions while you were writing?

Thank you. The strength and fragility of love are obviously important forces in life and the tension between the two fosters art. I am not sure what to say—most of us will have experienced the various faces of love and the trick is perhaps to accept that love is not a given—and then try to open our minds, unflinchingly, to its various aspects, good and bad. I can’t say I’m particularly good at it myself; we humans have a tendency to cling to the idea that love is some higher state that we must strive toward.

Q. Though their situation has a specific historical context and dramatic circumstances, in many ways the marital problems of Neil and Lizzie are very relatable to modern readers. If you had to summarize it, how would you characterize the core of their conflict?

Neil is crippled by an obscure sense of guilt and it makes him doubt his ability to love. Nor does he believe that he is worthy of being loved. His greatest weakness lies in his inability to see that he is strong enough to bear the burden of love, and so he channels his passions elsewhere. Lizzie for a long time fails to understand this and exhausts her own love in trying to make him love more, or better. She believes that all she needs is what he is unable to offer. In the end, after they have both reached a point of humility and understanding, there is a sense, at least in my mind, that their love may stand a chance, in some form.

Q. Lizzie’s encounter with the sailor is almost like a dream sequence, and yet it reveals a lot about her character—both to herself and to the reader at a critical juncture in the book. Can you talk about the significance of that moment from your perspective?

Lizzie channels all her passions into caring for the stranger. He becomes a canvas upon which she can paint her (unrequited) love. Life on the island up until that moment, and significantly the death of her first three children, has changed Lizzie—she is slowly getting to know herself and with that reawakening comes a sense of sexuality and eroticism. I wanted to stay true to the options and restrictions of a woman and her life in the 1830s while at the same time giving Lizzie a brief interlude—a rather smudged window—where she could be allowed to experience erotic love in a way which her (Calvinist) husband would never have allowed. Although the episode leads to grief and sadness it also makes her stronger and more independent.

Q. What do you think contemporary audiences can take away from this historical story? What would you most want your readers to experience?

I believe that setting a story in the past, or in a different geography for that matter, does not alter its truth—nor its relevance. I hope that my readers may agree that imagination and curiosity lead to compassion whereas fear and guilt may lead to alienation. The novel reminds us of something we often forget: that humanity—and the culture it creates—is a part of the natural world.

I also hope that my American readers, who may never get the chance to go to St. Kilda, may experience the beauty and terror of those extraordinary islands!


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What is Lizzie’s attitude toward the islanders when they first arrive at St. Kilda? How does this change over the course of the story?

  2. In what ways does the physical landscape of the island limit the MacKenzies in their daily lives as they’re accustomed to living them? How do they learn to cope with these conditions?

  3. It seems that the mainland people who visit St. Kilda either condemn the people for their primitive ways or idealize the island for its peaceful, democratic society. Why are their opinions so extreme? How do you view the island? Do you see truth in either perspective?

  4. The birds of St. Kilda are present throughout this book. What role do they serve in the lives of the islanders and what role do they serve in the story?

  5. Long before the MacKenzies arrive at St. Kilda, the islanders established their own religion. How would you describe it, and how is it similar to or different from Christianity?

  6. Neil MacKenzie is haunted by an event from his past. What is this event and what does his own interpretation of it tell us about him?

  7. The “eight–day sickness” haunts the island of St. Kilda. How does the death of newborns impact the characters individually and collectively?

  8. Over the course of the book, Neil’s doubts about his place on the island and his relationship to God deepen. What causes him to question himself? How does he manage these doubts?

  9. Neil and Lizzie go through some difficult times in their marriage. What causes their problems and how can they fix them?

  10. How have Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie changed from their experience by the end of the book? Do you feel hopeful about their lives together?