Altenberg has written one of those rare books that etch a permanent place in your heart—an experience so real and intimate, so fraught with emotion, that the characters on the page assume lifelike proportions. The islands of St. Kildans, a remote archipelago off the coast of Scotland, civilization has not kept pace with the rest of the country in the 1830s, still mired in the traditions and superstitions of ancestors. An essentially democratic society of shared ownership with no need for competition, the natives support themselves on the meat and by-products of the numerous bird species that arrive on the islands, filling their winter stores each spring then retreating to near-hibernation in the winter months.
Such a place could be viewed by a Christian minister from Scotland as the devil’s own workshop, where God is unknown, His sacred teachings flouted by pagan practices. Haunted by the need to redeem his tortured soul, the darkly handsome Reverend Neil MacKenzie arrives on the island of Hirta in 1830 with his pregnant wife and a new sense of mission. Fueled by zeal and a nascent fanaticism, MacKenzie is determined to scour superstition from the natives and draw them into the healing light of God’s Word. It is a battle he will not win.
Until the MacKenzies leave Hirta in 1843 following great changes in the Church of Scotland, the minister hectors his flock with angry sermons, urges them toward more civilized practices in their dwellings and the concept of individual ownership of land, but ultimately despairs of ever reaching into the souls of these simple folk. Yet another skirmish is engaged at home, where a desperately lonely Lizzie MacKenzie yearns for comfort from her stoic husband when she loses her first child. Neil considers her beauty both seductive and repulsive, viewing Lizzie as a temptress who will lead him to stray from his work—and the salvation he craves: “I think at times that you were never really brave enough to love us.”
Ever aloof from the people he is meant to bring to God, MacKenzie is riddled with the hypocrisy of his profession, his role as “leader” corrupting the humility necessary to engage his parishioners, who do their best to please him even as they stubbornly cling to the ways of the ancestors. Lizzie suffers for MacKenzie’s delusions, her loneliness unbearable until she bonds with the other women in the shared grief of lost children and the sacrifices of motherhood. Lizzie’s most damning judgment of her husband, finally, is spoken with great weariness of heart, Neil the “bravest of churchmen and the most cowardly of men.” Burning with the desire to teach his congregants “the purifying property of the heart’s sorrow,” the minister fails to become one of them, his aloof demeanor proving an ample shield against emotions that could bring him relief.
Altenberg’s canvas is vivid, either teeming with life or buried beneath swirling snow where man and nature coexist, the screeches of birds claiming their island each season, a cycle of birth and death for man and beast alike, an extraordinarily high infant mortality rate assuring that the lost ones “spirits were forever there, in the lap of a wing or a ripple of water.” The past comes to life in this heart-wrenching drama, the tenacity of a community that will eventually be extinct, whose openness and warmth is subject to ridicule by churchmen who think themselves privy to God’s confidences.
The black-cloaked minister is buffeted by inner demons and deformed by his own shortcomings. His wife suffers her husband’s scorn; the natives of St. Kildans are amenable to the minister’s demands but secure in their wisdom. Long after the novel is finished, I remember the raucous calls of birds, the rage of the ocean in winter, the immutable force of nature even in the face of God’s wrath.