Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Title: Island of Wings
Author: Karin Altenberg

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1830s / Rural Scotland / Marriage / Isolation / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin Paperback Original (12/27/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A Scottish missionary's wife learns about the savage cruelty of men and nature when she lives on a remote island off Scotland in the mid-19th century.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do as it captures the really gorgeous aspects of the novel -- the staggering landscape and the mystery of new arrivals.

I'm reminded of...: Sadie Jones, David Rocklin

First line: The young woman rose from her berth almost before she heard the knock on the cabin door.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a quiet but intense, almost adventurous historical novel that moves and entertains.

Why did I get this book?: 1830s + missionary's wife + isolated locale = win!

Review: A very cool, restrained book, this historical novel is set on St. Kilda, an island that is the furthest part of the British Isles. Beginning in 1830, the story follows Lizzie and her husband, missionary Rev. Neil MacKenzie, as they move from urban Scotland to the isolated, rocky, backwards island.

In some ways, the novel's arc is unsurprising -- the proper British couple is first charmed, then horrified, by the savage land -- but Altenberg's writing is controlled and captivating, and the development of Lizzie and Neil is surprising and familiar in a way that satisfies. I was strongly reminded of Jane Campion movies (like The Piano) in this novel: the focus on women, the impact of men on their lives, and a harsh and unforgiving world (both literally and emotionally).

There's a kind of historical mystery to the story, too, in the background, that Altenberg fully explains in her Notes. Altenberg's background is in archaeology, which comes out in the novel's almost naturalistic style of narrative, which fits the story: it has that kind of clinical feel of 19th century amateur scientists. The formal, controlled language, of course, does nothing to control, prevent, or manage the more 'earthy' events that occur, and it is that clash of aspiration and reality that provokes and changes Lizzie.

This is a sad novel, but not miserable, moving, with slightly unlikable characters. I felt affection and aggravation at Lizzie, some empathy and irritation toward her husband, Neil, and their marriage was one I rooted for and wished would end. They were, in short, real people, complicated and full, and their story and that of St. Kilda's is one that is moving, engrossing, and atmospheric. An unexpectedly rich novel for the end of my year.

*** *** ***


Thanks to the publisher, I can offer THREE copies of Island of Wings to three lucky winners! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 1/8.


  1. This looks like such an interesting read! I just entered the giveaway also. Have a Happy New Year to you and yours!

  2. I'm beginning to think that historical fiction may be my favorite genre...would love to give this one a try :)

  3. This one looks super interesting! I love historical fiction but feel like I didn't read nearly enough of it this year.

  4. It does sound good, I like quiet sometimes. And when that is together with intense then yes

  5. I've not heard a lot about this book, but it does sound as if it is a rather engrossing read. I like that the setting is so unusual, and can imagine that I would probably really enjoy this one. Great review today!

  6. This sounds interesting and it's set in Scotland! Always a bonus :)

  7. I noticed this book the other day and thought it sounded really good. Your thoughts on it make me want to read it even more. I really like the cover!

  8. I got this book from Anansi, and it came with very high praise (genuine praise) from the publicist. After your review, I look forward to it even more.

  9. This looks like an engrossing read. I hadn't heard of it before today, so I'm glad I stumbled upon your post on Goodreads! Thanks for having such a great giveaway! ~Mary Beth

  10. @Natalie: It was really unique -- loved the writing style and setting. Thanks for the NY wishes -- same to you!

    @Peppermint: It might be my favorite genre, too -- so much interesting stuff can happen/be explored in hist fic.

    @Kelly: I think hist fic was my biggest genre this year and I feel like I only scratched the surface of the ones I wanted to read! But I'm so glad I picked up this one!

    @Blodeuedd: Exactly -- it had such moodiness to it, in a good way!

    @Heather: I inhaled this book -- even though the plot felt like it could be 'typical' I really enjoyed the way the characters developed and the setting was just out-of-this-world strange (in a good way).

    @Elysium: Yes -- I do love Scottish settings and St. Kilda is an alien sounding location -- I kind of want to visit it!

    @Darlene: The cover is gorgeous in person -- really striking. The book is as good as the cover! ;)

    @Steph: Can't wait to see what you think of it -- I'm not surprised it got good praise as it's solid and atmospheric.

    @Mary Beth: Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! It was totally engrossing -- an unexpected armchair escape!

  11. I love historical fiction. That time period is when some of my ancestors came to America from Carisle, England which is on the border between Scotland and England. Sounds like an interesting book.


  12. Thank you very much for this great giveaway. I love historical fiction, and historical fiction set in Scotland is my ultimate reading genre. Great review.