Quercus, £12.99 Order for £11.69 (free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Island of Wings, By Karin Altenberg

A desolate, affecting first flight

From Chinua Achebe to Peter Carey and beyond, the ambiguous character of the missionary – committed to spreading Christianity and education, but often a self-deceiving dupe – has recurred in the fiction of empire and its aftermath. As well as preaching the word of God in jungle or outback, these servants of the church (and state) also sought to civilise their own storm-lashed backyards.

In her powerfully imagined debut, Karin Altenberg has delivered a post-colonial novel set not in Africa, Asia or Australia, but at the edge of the British Isles.

The three rocky islands of St Kilda, west of the Hebrides, were inhabited by a stubborn community that wrested a living out of their abundant seabirds – gannets, fulmars, puffins – from prehistoric times until 1930. The final evacuation inspired one of Douglas Dunn's finest poems, "St Kilda's Parliament". Altenberg goes back a century before that, to 1830. St Kilda's new minister, Neil MacKenzie (a historical figure), arrives with his wife, Lizzie, armed with the gospel and dreams of progress for these local versions of the noble savage.

Island of Wings pairs a portrait of a marriage under the extreme stress of social isolation, emotional distance and the death of infant children with a chronicle of the clash between the enlightened faith of the Church of Scotland and the rooted traditions of a Gaelic-speaking pagan place. "The minister did not seem to understand that the ancestors were part of the land," reflects a sceptical island boy – not in the bush, but the United Kingdom itself.

Alongside the struggles of Neil's "spectacular" mission, two other elements lend Island of Wings its rugged grace. First is the evocation of the terrain and its birdlife: not daintily poetic, but as bracing as this landscape needs. Second, Altenberg charts the tempests in Lizzie's mind. Wifely devotion and intermittent joy war with loneliness, longing, the toll of bereavement and an agonising sense of waste. "Is this the man for whom I left everything?" she asks as Neil sinks into distress, even despair.

Their 13-year ordeal lifts the couple into the realm of wind-buffeted tragedy. Romantic and Enlightenment ideals blow in to change forever these remote cliffs and crags – though an editor should have spotted that, in 1831, conversation would have turned not on the abolition of the slave trade (in 1807) but slavery in the Empire itself.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power