Last week I was killing time in the High Street waiting for the Framers to open, as you do, and I wandered into Waterstones. It has been a while since I was in a book shop, I’m ashamed to say. I usually visit the small independents when I can, but I rarely go into the big bookshops, preferring to shop online. And having seen the prices of paperbacks these days, it might be a while before I do again. But there is nothing quite like a browse, reading the back covers, being attracted by the striking ones, and coming across blurbs that attract – something which Amazon never quite offers.
So it was that I came away with two books, and have just finished the first – Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg. I have long been fascinated with the story of the Island of St Kilda and that is the setting of this book. In fact, it is mostly historically accurate and some of the characters are based on documentary sources.
Rev Neil MacKenzie and his new wife arrive on St Kilda in 1830. He is determined to save the souls of the pagan inhabitants. His wife, Lizzie, speaks no Gaelic and finds it an incredibly lonely place with nobody to speak to. Life is harsh and reliant on the extreme environment for food and shelter. In time Neil becomes more and more distant from his wife and family as he throws himself into bringing Christianity to the islanders. Their lives are blighted by miscarriage, infant death and loss.
The book is beautifully written, evocative and compelling. Neil’s wrestling with faith and leadership might echo with the stuff that many clergy ponder from time to time. Why am I doing this? What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing?
And if you want to be scared witless about what passed for Presbyterianism on that island, then this is the book for you.