A review of Island of Wings by Karen Altenberg

Reviewed by Sheri Harper

Island of Wings
by Karen Altenberg
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-312066-7, Paperback: 320 pages, Dec 2011

Swedish archaeologist Karen Altenberg’s first historical novel is based on research related to the island of St. Kilda islands of Scotland where the story takes place. The novel follows the fictional lives of a newly married missionary couple in 1830. What is impressive to me is how carefully the author weaves in details of island life with the changing stages of life a married woman will go through as part of her life.

Lizzie MacKenzie is an appealing character because she is so accepting of a very harsh lifestyle compared to the one in which she was raised. She is also appealing because of how and where she finds strength. The story has a hint of fantasy in the beginning but it soon melts away before the conditions of life. Lizzie’s view of her husband and their relationship paints a dramatic tale—life isn’t easy and what makes it less easy is when the strength of each partner in the marriage dwindles. This is a romance without a romantic viewpoint.

One of the dramatic questions raised by the story is the problems associated with infant health—the facts revealed are heartbreaking for the mothers involved and the readers to witness vicariously. The resolution of the problem of the infant’s deaths is solved by history rather than the novel which is also sad because both the heroine and her husband would have liked to have solved it. Their role in the community life is questionable all through the book, so the book also offers commentary on the role of religion in culture and society at large.

Several supporting characters are painted with skill; they grow into people that the heroine and her husband care about enough that the reader joins into their admiration. Other characters help to place the story into social and historical context.

What is perhaps amazing is the fact that people migrate to unwelcome climes and live their willing. The heroine/narrator shares the awe of the St. Kilda islands with the reader including the birds and the environment and what makes it a special place, but also explains how people subsist and many of the problems that islands have in general i.e. the requirement for a support system provided by countries that are nearby for trade and also for charity.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg is an unusual book for providing a view into the lives of St. Kilda islanders, missionary life, lives of woman that lived during the 1830s. Most readers will find themselves immersed in the action and heart of Lizzie MacKenzie.

About the reviewer: Sheri Fresonke Harper is a poet and writer. She’s been published in many small journals and is working on her second science fiction novel. See www.sfharper.com