I've said already that Karin Altenberg's Island of Wings reminded me - in part - of the excellent Night Waking by Sarah Moss (post on it, one of my books of 2011, here) as both are set on small Scottish islands and feature incomers trying to find a place for themselves in closed communities. But where Night Waking has a present day story woven in tightly with its Victorian strand, Island of Wings is set only in the nineteenth century and spans the years from 1830 to 1843. It's based on real people and actual events, too, but is a creative re-imagining of what life must have been like on remote St. Kilda so long ago.
Picture a sparsely populated rock of great natural beauty, far out in the Atlantic and cut off for much of the year when wild weather makes the crossing from mainland Scotland impossible. Its people speak only Gaelic and subsist chiefly on a diet of seabirds, risking life and limb to catch their prey. Their living conditions are primitive and there is a high rate of infant mortality, a curse to the future of the community, but theirs is a settled, even-handed society with a daily 'parliament' to decide on work and other issues.
Expecting to find "noble savages" as their congregation, the Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie arrive to minister to the islanders, a church and manse having been built by the laird for this purpose. Neil speaks Gaelic but Lizzie has only English, and this language barrier compounds her status as an outsider and her feeling that she is somehow diminished, both in the eyes of the villagers and of her husband, too. For both man and wife it will be a testing time.
Though dramatic events do befall the MacKenzies and their St. Kildan neighbours over the years, the book is more to do with the lost way of life on the island, the seasons marked by the comings and goings of the migrating birds, as the story traces the slow adjustment and gradual assimilation of the protagonists to the harsh environment and strange culture, and the ways in which they cope with isolation and deprivation of different - and not only material - kinds.
I found this a very elegant novel, one that's assured and convincing and which uses a wealth of research as the basis for a work of sensibility and imagination, taking the trials of faith and love and loss and making something sadly lovely and memorable of them.