An interview with the author of Island of Wings
Born and brought up in southern Sweden, Karin Altenberg moved to Britain to study in 1996. She holds a PhD in Archaeology and is currently senior advisor to the Swedish National Heritage Board and a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.
Island of Wings, her first novel, was published in 2012. It tells the fictionalised story of two historical characters, Neil and Lizzie Mackenzie. In the early 19th century, the couple move to St Kilda, far to the west of Scotland, where he has taken on the role of minister. During their time on the island, both husband and wife find the way they view the world, themselves and each other is challenged and changed forever. The novel was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012.
The Island Review asked Karin Altenberg about the novel and about her fascination with the mysterious island that lies at the heart of it.
What drew you to write about St Kilda, and about these two characters – Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie – in particular?
An archaeologist friend, who had been excavating on Hirta, first told me about St Kilda many years ago. At the time I was attracted by the romantic aspects of the archipelago: the remoteness, the otherworldliness, the drama of the scenery and the weather. Later on, when I began to read about St Kilda and its history, I was particularly interested in the people who had made a life for themselves in Village Bay for centuries. This small community emerged in my archaeologist’s mind as a kind of micro-reflection of civilisation.
At around the same time, I was reading a lot about the Scottish Enlightenment and its philosophy on morals, land-use and social improvement. Neil MacKenzie appeared from my research as a son of the Enlightenment – as somebody who would have been greatly influenced by its ideals and visions. So, my research presented me with a place, a people and a pastor – but not a novel. Lizzie offered the motivation to write a novel. She was one of those common ghosts of history, a name without a face or a story. I found only two descriptions of her in the sources – one mentioned her ‘making an agreeable cup of tea’ and another said that she ‘kept her children clean and well-fed’. It may sound pretentious but in hindsight I think I turned this book in to a novel to give Lizzie a life.
There are few more enigmatic locations than St Kilda. Did you find yourself at all daunted by the island itself, and the cultural and historical baggage that it carries?
No, not at the time of writing. Perhaps I was just naïve. Before I started writing, while I was still carrying out research with a view to writing about St Kilda’s cultural (rather than natural) history, a friend told me rather sternly that the world didn’t need another academic book about St Kilda. That’s when I realised I was going to write a novel.
As an archaeologist I know that we are all strangers in the face of the past. No one can claim the right to know past people and places better than anyone else. There is equality in this pluralist view of history. This is not to say that, in order to describe a facet of a historic society or individual, there is not a great responsibility to be as ‘accurate’ as possible.
As a novelist I realise that all characters are fictional and ‘real’ in equal measure. The novelist makes a character come alive – and should we fail in this endeavour it doesn’t matter if there was an actual historical person with the same name and biographical data – that person will still not be real. Thomas Cromwell was not real to me before I read Hilary Mantel’s novels and who is to say that Goeffrey Firmin or Anna Karenina never existed? But then, when Island of Wings was published and I started going to literary festivals, I have to admit that I was suddenly struck by an anxiety that somebody in the audience would stand up and say: “That’s my great, great, great grandfather you’re talking about”. I’m relieved to say that, so far, it hasn’t happened – but my response would still have been the same: I know Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie as well as anybody.
This is, in some senses, a novel about isolation. There is the island, of course, separated from the mainland by many miles of ocean; then there is the distance that exists between the main characters and the islanders, and ultimately between Neil and Lizzie themselves. But the book also identifies a kind of spiritual individualism, as preached by Rev. MacKenzie, which begins to eat away at the community cohesion which was previously, necessarily, at the heart of island life. Do you see this change in the social and spiritual life of the islanders as a significant part of the process which led to St Kilda's ultimate fate?
Neil MacKenzie’s mission has as much to do with progress as with religion. He has been given the task to ‘bring the St Kildans into the modern world’ and eradicate the un-Christian aspects of their traditional ways. This is a moral as well as a practical quest. His own family had been forced to leave for Nova Scotia during the clearances and so he imposed a land reform on the St Kildans in order to make them more efficient and less vulnerable. He sees it as every individual’s responsibility to be useful. God, in MacKenzie’s theology, cannot stand idleness, superstition and dilly-dallying. Because of this, Neil’s view of the world and its time is linear—the future must be an improvement of the past. To the St Kildans, on the other hand, time is cyclic and rhythmic; they live by the seasons and by the coming and going of birds. Their perception of past and present is confused; the ancestors who built the houses are still very much part of the community and the death of a child is a communal rather than a personal disaster. The future, if the St Kildans could imagine it at all, would have the same shape as the past and would yield no particular possibilities or surprises. A lifetime on St Kilda was as much a spatial as a temporal concept and it is difficult to say what their idea of an afterlife might have been – it certainly was not the same as Neil McKenzie’s. This is the root of the conflict, and yes, ultimately and inevitably, of a change in attitude that rendered it impossible for the St Kildans to continue the way of life that had sustained the community for centuries.
Continuing on from that point, you tread a thin line in the novel when describing the conflict between the old way of life of the St Kildans and the social 'progress' sought by Neil MacKenzie. On the one hand, you describe in horrifying detail the conditions in which the islanders lived, with putrefying bird carcasses and animal and human excrement inside their houses, and the shockingly high level of infant mortality. But at the same time, their lives undoubtedly hold a kind of romantic appeal, to which the modernisation proposed by MacKenzie is very much a threat. Did this tension reflect your own response to the historical facts?
I think the conflict, as described above, and the tension is what draws a lot of people to the narrative of St Kilda – and other islands like it for that matter. The story and images of the evacuation of St Kilda, for example, epitomise the idea of a ‘world that is forever lost to us’. I understand this sentiment of loss and regret but I’m afraid nostalgia has been wrenched out of me over the years. I don’t believe in the ‘good old days’, nor that things were ‘better before’. I suspect that we turn to nostalgia when we cannot cope with the complexity of the here and now; but where we go wrong is when we imagine that the past was less complex than the present. The challenge, as I see it, is to come to terms with life as it is and look it in the eye as unflinchingly as possible. The past, in my view, is about curiosity and exploration, about trying to make sense and create patterns of what we experience in the present.
Having said that, the tension, as you call it, between romance and grit is essential to my novel and whilst writing I had to be disgusted by the filth and stink in one passage only to live close to the land and the ancestors in the next. I had to feel these things in order to make it work.
Finally, why do you think islands make such good settings for fiction?
Ah, I could go on about this for some time … and by the way, I love The Island Review!
There are the more or less obvious reasons, reflected in the word itself, which lend themselves to fiction – the isolation, the containment, the demarcation of space; the setting of the stage. Then there are the long-standing literary connotations of adventure and romance that we cannot completely ignore – the return to Ithaca, the escape from the Château d’If, the isle is full of noises, no man is an island and so on.
But to answer this question properly I must turn to the personal. Growing up a rather baffled child, I spent a lot of time on an island off the west coast of Sweden, just south of Norway. This rocky island – and the skerries around it – is where I started my exploration. All my senses tuned into its seascape that seemed charged with significance, promise and mystery. For a long time I believed that I would be able to find all the answers there. Now I think that mystery represents a need to explore something we can never discover. This is why I still go back to the island to find peace and return to a state of curiosity, which is the driving force of all creativity.
Finally, there is something forgiving and forgetting about islands – the way they are washed clean and seem to rise again, every morning, out of the sea.
Portrait of Karin Altenberg by Pauline Keightley.