The Chapel at the Edge of the World, By Kirsten McKenzie

A fine debut inspired by a wartime act of optimism
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The story of the Italian Chapel of Lamb Holm is one of the Second World War's most rousing tales of reconciliation. An unassuming, tin-and-tat Nissen hut on the wild Orkney island Lamb Holm was converted by Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist-turned-soldier, and his fellow Italian prisoners of war, into a place of worship to which they would have proudly taken their mamas to Mass. It still sits perched on the exposed island lid, relentlessly buffeted by squalls and the North Sea breakers. Kirsten McKenzie has taken this remarkable building and its beginnings as inspiration for her debut novel. It's a compliment to the band of Italians who laboured almost 70 years ago that the result is as sturdy and distinguished a construct as their Catholic sanctuary.

McKenzie's protagonists, Emilio and Rosa, are childhood sweethearts. However, the rise of fascism finds Emilio, a talented fresco painter and fictional stand-in for Chiocchetti, conscripted and shipped off to North Africa. Rosa is left tending to her mother's lakeside hotel. After a swift capture, Emilio is exiled to the Orkneys along with 500 other Italians to work on "Churchill's Barriers", the concrete naval defences protecting the anchorage at Scapa Flow. Meanwhile, Rosa finds herself juggling the precarious time bombs of a new suitor and political activism.

The emotional core of this book focuses on how love evolves when two parties are separated. "Rosa was still there, carrying on with a new life, and growing and changing with time, while time for Emilio had been slowed down, each day merging into one featureless whole." Will absence make the heart grow fonder or will it be a case of out of sight, out of mind? The answer, which McKenzie finely tunes as the novel develops, is a conflicted blend of both. There is an unsentimental truth exhibited in this torn relationship.

Life on Lamb Holm, bleached by isolation and the pounding weather, is well portrayed. When the prisoners are offered the chance to create a chapel, the project forms a timely respite from their predicament. As the build and decoration progresses, cynicism dissipates and bonds between captor and captive are spun like belay lines across prescribed wartime allegiances. In a place where "not even rucola will grow", hope blooms.

Chiocchetti, the real-life Emilio, returned to the island in 1960 to view the restored chapel and renew his ties with the Orcadians. In a letter to the islanders he expressed his joy of seeing again "the little chapel of Lamb Holm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart". The publication of The Chapel at the Edge of the World arrives on the 10th anniversary of his death. I can't imagine a finer tribute than this lovely book.