Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Read this Book! (Island of Wings)

If I weren't so charmed by Karin Altenberg's vivid descriptions of the island-setting of her book, I'd probably hate her. Island of Wings is her first book and it's in English, her second language after her native Swedish. But she makes too much good use of the language and her observations are too sharp to hate her. In fact, I kind of want her to be my friend, which is ironic because at it's heart, her novel is about isolation and how difficult, how nearly impossible, it can be to bridge the vast empty spaces between people. (It is no coincidence that the story takes place on an island, which becomes a main character in and of itself.)

Island of Wings is a fictionalized account of the lives of Neil MacKenzie, the missionary assigned to St Kilda, the most remote island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, and his wife, Lizzie. While Neil is occupied by trying to convert the savage, superstitious natives with a fervor (stemming from the guilt he feels from a childhood accident) that we have perhaps seen in other missionary fiction such as Things Fall Apart and The Poisonwood Bible, Lizzie must face the solitude of a missionary's wife who doesn't speak the language and doesn't know the culture. Lizzie's story, in fact, becomes the focus of the book. According to an interview in the Scotsman, Altenberg found very little information about her female protagonist. "One comment was that Mrs MacKenzie made an agreeable cup of tea; another was that her children were kept clean. 'Her story is so interesting, because she's another of those invisible women in history who apparently doesn't exist.'"

Altenberg also brings to light another footnote from St. Kilda in the 1830s. People living on the island faced, according to some sources, a 50% infant mortality rate from the "eight-day sickness" or neonatal tetanus. Lizzie, who loses three babies, does not escape this fate and it is perhaps this shared loss that brings her closest to the other women on the island. It is also what pulls her further away from her husband who -- even years later -- blames her for the death of their first son, who died when Lizzie when into premature labor. This wrenching apart of a marriage is the center of this narrative. On the one hand is a man who seems so blinded by his faith (and guilt) that he is unable to see the wife family right in front of him. On the other is a woman whose ability to communicate with those around her has made her utterly practical, focused almost entirely on the present. In the end, she calls him a coward for being unable to love his wife and children. I agreed.

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