After enjoying Sarah Moss’s Night Waking last year, I was really looking forward to returning to St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides and learning more about the blight of neonatal tetanus that killed 60% of newborns during the 1830’s – a horrifying story which I find hard to process, given that the cause is still subject to theory. Life on the island is seen through the eyes of Calvinist minister, Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie, who leave the mainland to take up a ministry aimed at Christianising the pagan islanders. What they find is nothing short of extraordinary – an island, where human life is dependent on the wild bird population. Without them as a primary food source the islanders would starve. On the other hand, as symbolised in Lizzie’s first encounter with the aggressive skua, the birds can present very real threats.
An island without trees, an island pounded by Atlantic storms and one scarred by shocking rates of infant mortality is one likely to provide Neil MacKenzie with a challenging ministry and a lonely existence for his wife, Lizzie, marooned in a Gaelic-speaking community as a wife who must take second place to her husband’s zeal for God. She must experience and deal with the attendant cultural, environmental and emotional shocks alone. Hers is not the stoicism of the islanders, although, following a painful period of adjustment, she, the non-Gaelic speaking one, forms a closer attachment to the islanders than her husband.
While it’s easy to sympathise with Lizzie, it’s still difficult to condemn Neil MacKenzie. Altenberg paints a portrait of a flawed human being, a man of his time, a Calvinist with a mission and a burden of guilt carried from a fatal accident in his past. One in which his courage failed him. It’s a pattern which is to repeat itself, not only on the island, but also back on the mainland when the future of the Church of Scotland is at stake.
The MacKenzies were real people although their lives and the deterioration of their marriage poignantly imagined. The author is an archaeologist and that shows in the detailed construction of life on the island. In particular I’m not going to forget the layout of a traditional St Kildean home or the indignities (and worse) that need to be overcome to enter one! Altenburg is also Swedish and, therefore, writing astoundingly in her second language. It’s not flawless: there’s the rare jarring note language-wise, a pacing issue (too slow at the start), a critical scene that is too obviously flagged (clue: Duncan) and a scene that felt that it was inserted to spice up the action for a modern day audience (clue: shipwreck). For all that though, it is a keeper.