Thursday, October 20, 2011

Island of Wings

One theory behind why people enjoy spicy food so much  is that the pain of the spices creates a counter-response in your body that sends endorphins flying through your system. In a way, it's like being rewarded for deliberately hurting yourself, so naturally you go back for more. Personally, I never get that rush of endorphins when my mouth is on fire and my eyes are tearing up. Maybe I don't push myself far enough, I'm not sure. Books, though, are another matter. I love a sad story. I don't always enjoy every moment of reading them (sometimes the sorrow is just too acute), but there's something incredible about being allowed to see someone's inner life so clearly that, for the moments you're reading, their despair becomes yours. Obviously, I can't read a lot of these books at a time because it would make me miserable, but I do try to plan things out so that, every once in a while, I get to a sad and lovely story (typically book-ended by happier novels). Most recently, that book was Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg.

The easy set-up of Island of Wings goes like this: in 1830 Reverend Neil McKenzie and his new wife Lizzie move from mainland Scotland to the islands of St. Kilda, in the Hebrides, where Neil becomes the minister to the small and remote community. The islanders, though, only speak Gaelic. This is not a problem for Neil, as Gaelic is his first language, but Lizzie is immediately isolated by her inability to speak to anyone on the island besides her husband, whom she barely knows. She is pregnant when they arrive and that wide open possibility becomes a great source of private joy for her. When Lizzie falls down a hillside though, and loses the baby, it not only causes her to withdraw into herself again, but it etches the first crack in her fragile marriage. 

The island the McKenzie's live on is called Hirta and it's far enough north to not have any trees. It's windswept and remote, and everything about life there is a great shock to Lizzie. She and Neil live in the manse, which was built, along with the tiny church, in preparation for their arrival. The rest of the St. Kildans, though, live just the way their ancestors always had, in stone and earth houses with thatched roofs and no windows. The walls are seven-feet thick and entering means crawling through first through the area where the animals are kept before entering the main room (the beds are hollowed out of the walls). It's primitive and, as seen through the "civilized" eyes of Lizzie and Neil, disgusting. All the families' waste is spread over the floor throughout the year to act as fertilizer in the spring, and the smell, as Altenberg notes on several occasions, is vile. 

For Lizzie, living among people whose customs and language she can't understand is initially crushing. For Neil, however, the challenge suits his missionary zeal, which stems from his guilty conscious over surviving a shipwreck while his friend drowned. He never tells Lizzie about this incident, but pieces of what happened come out over the course of the novel and gradually offer a key to understanding his character. Meanwhile, Neil's religious vigour becomes increasingly intense and his treatment of his wife increasingly cruel. He is obsessed with how people see him and whether he is being made to look a fool, and the main target for his anxiety is Lizzie.

For her part, Lizzie gradually becomes more comfortable with both the island's rhythms (the wealth of birds arriving in the spring, the desolate cold of the winter) and the islanders themselves. Her second pregnancy comes to term and she has twin daughters. But the island is afflicted with strange illnesses, and the majority of the babies born die within eight days. When Lizzie loses her daughters to this horrible sickness, in a strange way it brings her closer to the women on the island, who have all also lost children this way. Lizzie has some luck though, and her next child survives, as do all the subsequent ones. In a fit of what appears to be compassion, Neil even has a maid brought over from the mainland to help Lizzie with the house and the children. 

But as Lizzie grows stronger, Neil's strength recedes. His religious fervour intensifies and his suspicion of his wife and simultaneous repulsion and attraction to her eventually reach a breaking point. Altenberg moves between their two perspectives in building her story, giving you insight into each one's motivations and torments, but she never moves outside of their marriage for a bird's eye view. Island of Wings is very much an interior portrait – within the island, within the marriage – and at times the closeness of the story becomes almost claustrophobic in the same way that, for Neil and Lizzie, the marriage does.

Island of Wings begins with the McKenzies arriving on Hirta and ends shortly after they've left, many years later. In many ways, the structure is that of a coming-of-age novel: Neil as a minister, the McKenzies as a family, and the island as a developing community. Read in that light, the bleakness of the narrative is softened by the suggestion that the spiral will reverse itself, and if things don't turn around completely, the winter will end, the birds will return and life will pick up again.

Island of Wings
by Karin Altenberg
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

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