It is 1830.....on the ten hour sailing west of the Hebrides to the islands of St Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil MacKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders and Lizzie, his new wife, is expecting their first child.
But nothing could have prepared them for an island almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, where the wind howls incessantly and no trees grow, a breeding ground for thousands of seabirds, gannets, fulmars and puffins incessantly filling the air with their screaming cries.
Or to be met by a ' stench of something which reminded her of rotten shrimps' ..........' the stench around the natives was so unbearable that it made his pregnant wife nauseous.'
The island's inhabitants live in the same primitive cleits (holes dug in the ground) as their ancestors, their diet is seabirds, their beliefs are pagan and superstitious and babies die mysteriously in their first week but they also have a strong and democratic community.
|Cleit above Village Bay|
The Reverend MacKenzie is determined to change their lives. Spiritually, by saving their souls and ridding them of beliefs based on ancient superstition, and materially, by carrying out land reforms similar to what was happening throughout Scotland at the time. He's not a man easy to like although as the story progresses one comes to understand how his past has made him a person who finds it almost impossible to relate to anyone on an emotional level.
It is Lizzie I felt for and it was sad to see her happy optimism give way to sorrow and loneliness. Unlike her husband she couldn't speak Gaelic so had no way of communicating with the islanders yet over the years, as her relationship with him becomes increasingly distant, she still manages to form strong bonds with the women, a rapport Neil never finds.
The characters are a little underdeveloped and I had the feeling they were secondary to the story of the island itself but I found the obviously well-researched history of St Kilda and the details of island life fascinating. The author's passion for her subject is revealed in the superb natural descriptions and weeks after reading it I can still hear the sea and the haunting cries of the birds, and feel the desolation and remoteness of this unique part of the world.
It's a beautiful and sorrowful story about real people in a real place and I enjoyed it very much.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin, 2011