Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg – a novel which tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to fly

It’s 1830. Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, a newly married young couple, arrive at the remotest part of the British Isles: St Kilda. He is a minister determined to save the souls of the pagan inhabitants; his pregnant wife speaks no Gaelic and, when her husband is away, has only the waves and the cry of gulls for company. As both find themselves tested to the limit in this harsh new environment, Lizzie soon discovers that marriage is as treacherous a country as the land that surrounds her.

This is a most peculiar novel and set off a range of mixed reactions as I was reading it. In fact, I’m unsure if it even fits into the category of novel as such, as it seems to lie somewhere between fiction (which it obviously is) and fact (whose structure it adheres to). It reminded me of a far less gracefully written version of Flora Thompson’s marvellous Larkrise to Candleford series reviewed here by Moira last year, but without the sense of character which is Thompson’s great skill. There’s a great deal of telling and very little showing, for instance, which serves to distance the reader from the characters. Here’s one passage for instance:

May was the most important season of the year to the fowler as the fulmar and many other manners of seabirds were hatching all over the grassy ledges of the sea cliffs of Hirta. In the manse the minister’s young wife was busy with the spring cleaning. Every now and again she would sit down to rest between a bucket and a broom. Although the new baby was not due until the end of summer, she was a lot heavier than during her pregnancy the previous spring. After the premature birth and death of the boy Nathaniel, Mr and Mrs Mackenzie had not talked of him again.

As an aside, the way Lizzie keeps being described as Mrs Mackenzie, especially at the beginning, is rather odd even though we already know her as Lizzie.

One thing I will say for Altenberg – her understanding of setting is excellent and by the end of the book I knew those islanders and that place through and through. I could hear the cries of the birds, taste the salt sea on my tongue and smell the dank sourness of the homes the people lived in. It’s a tour de force in descriptive writing:

The sound of the sea was everywhere, but as she ascended the hill the cries of the fulmar became even louder. High above the huge granite dome of the east fell starlings were playing their summer games … Time was no longer linear in this place where no one could remember who built the houses, cleits and dykes and where the seasons were marked by the comings and goings of the migrating birds. The ancestors were near the living, and the world of men was closely linked with the rock, the sea and the birds with which they shared these elements. Time and space seemed suspended, so that here and now was always and everywhere.

Somehow, however, against the power of the island and all it signifies, the characters tend to fade away. I never really got to grips with Lizzie or Neil, and often it felt as if they were nothing but ciphers for the story of the island. I really disliked the amateurish way we hop from viewpoint to viewpoint within a scene, and often the narrative voice is too strong for the people to live and breathe. I also thought that both Lizzie and Neil occasionally act out of character, either in order to create more and rather unnecessary tension in the plot, or because the author has forgotten that they’re not the sort of people to do whatever she’s making them do. This happens particularly with Neil who goes from being nice one moment to being really horrid the other, and I have no idea why.

In fact Neil is the more interesting character, even though Lizzie gets more page time, and his back story and the reasons for his sense of evangelical mission are fascinating. In some ways he therefore became the more sympathetic character as I didn’t really understand what made Lizzie who she is because her background is only lightly sketched.

However, an aspect of this book which I did on the whole enjoy was the portrait of Lizzie and Neil’s marriage. I have to admit that when I started to read, I groaned as I was convinced we were going to get the standard literary fare of “woman marries man in an historical setting and doesn’t like him so has affair with someone else instead”. So I was delighted to find the plot didn’t go down that route, though it came pretty near the cliché clifftop on occasion. Instead, Lizzie and Neil fade in and out of their marriage, emotionally speaking, as there are times when they’re hugely distant from each other and times when they’re incredibly close. It was all wonderfully realistic and very subtly done. Even the overwhelming attraction Lizzie feels for a passing stranger on the island doesn’t come to anything, which I was very pleased about. Infidelity is so passé, my dears. However later on in the story, it’s a mystery why Neil should suddenly turn against her so violently and I felt really rather pleased when they were reconciled, in their own unique fashion.

Another part of the book that I came across entirely unexpectedly was the wonderfully comic scene of social satire when the Mackenzies are hosting a dinner for the visiting Sir Thomas and Lady Acland. It’s as if a different author entirely has written these gloriously Austenesque few pages and, really, I longed for more of it:

Sir Thomas looked surprised; he was not used to being contradicted outside Parliament, and deep down he was terrified of the rise of the middling ranks. But he hated mediocrity and admired this young minister who was anything but tame.

Then, later, when Lizzie has said something which annoys and confuses Lady Acland:

Lady Acland did not quite understand, but saw that the younger woman’s dress was really dreadfully plain.

Bliss indeed. But, if I may be so bold, one swallow does not a summer make. This is still a clumsy novel in many ways, but a gloriously descriptive elegy to an island and the end of a way of life. Whilst I wasn’t entirely convinced I liked it enough to buy another Altenberg, it was certainly an interesting read.

Island of Wings, Quercus Press 2011, ISBN 978 0 85738 233 7
Also available as an ebook

[Anne is a closet birdwatcher and happily includes a giant snow-raven in her fantasy novel, The Gifting. Much to her amazement and joy, it was recently picked for inclusion at the Awesome Indies website.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. She also loves the theatre and is a keen fan of crosswords and sudokus, as long as they're not too hard! Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

13 comments on “Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg – a novel which tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to fly

  1. drharrietd
    June 28, 2012

    I tried this and could not get on with it, really. Interesting and perceptive review which makes me realise why! Thanks.

  2. annebrooke
    June 28, 2012

    Thanks for the comment, drharrietd – glad it wasn’t just me! 🙂

  3. Karen
    June 28, 2012

    You give good review Anne. The book sounds a tad bipolar.

  4. annebrooke
    June 28, 2012

    🙂 Thanks, Karen! And yes – you may well be right. Hadn’t thought of that …


  5. Kate
    June 28, 2012

    I’m wondering if the author is a scientist or a social historian who found a great setting and wanted to write a novel on it: does the publisher’s blurb or website say anything to suggest this? It’s pretty hard to be a novelist and a scientist (though Barbara Kingsolver may be the sole living stunningly good exception).

  6. annebrooke
    June 28, 2012

    Good point, Kate – that would certainly make sense 🙂 I think she has a PhD in Archaeology, which is fairly scientific.

  7. Kate
    June 28, 2012

    Well of COURSE! That’s exactly the kind of novel an archaeologist would write. Can’t think why I didn’t get there earlier. More power to her: hope she gets better at it, because by the sound of it she’s got the hard part nailed, and now has to get better at telling a story in the right way.

  8. annebrooke
    June 28, 2012

    🙂 Still a BIG leap to being able to tell a story though, Kate! I’d be interested if Altenberg attempted creative non-fiction. Suspect that might be her strength ..

  9. Jackie
    June 28, 2012

    I liked the passages that you quote here. You’re right that she’s wonderfully descriptive. And I laughed at the part with the Aclands. It’s unfortunate that the author didn’t do better with the story & characters. But I’m still tempted to try the book anyways.

  10. annebrooke
    June 28, 2012

    Thanks, Jackie. Do let me know what you think if you give it a try 🙂

  11. Pingback: Review: Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg | Alex In Leeds

  12. Pingback: Island of Wings – Karin Altenberg – 4/10 (DNF) | Reading With Tea

  13. Toffeeapple
    December 12, 2013

    I struggled with this book too. I found the characters very shallow and Lizzie reacted to her husband in ways which seemed too modern for the era. I had it on my Kindle but have deleted it without getting to the end. I shall be visiting this site for further advice, thank you.

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