The islands of St. Kilda, a windswept archipelago off the coast of Scotland, are the setting for a profoundly moving novel that pits the zeal of missionary Neil MacKenzie against centuries of tradition, the minister forcing a harsh and judgmental God on natives who have known only superstition, the guidance of ancestors and the reliability of seasons, either an abundance of arriving birds they harvest for sustenance or grueling winters when Hirta, the only inhabitable island, is scoured by violent storms. Like the extremities of the weather, the missionary's worldview is equally stark, the stubborn beliefs of the St. Kildans unacceptable, MacKenzie urging acceptance of civilization and "the purifying property of the heart's sorrow", available only to repentant sinners. Brought ashore in 1830 with his pregnant young wife, MacKenzie seeks redemption for past sins, convinced God's forgiveness will be secured by reshaping the lives of primitive islanders mired in ignorance.
Altenberg's descriptions of the islands are extraordinary, a sky filled with beating wings, the joyful shouts of natives racing to gather nature's bounty, barren cliffs dotted with thick-walled dwellings built by ancestors, a democratic community untainted by ambition or greed, a remote place where a troubled man searches for affirmation of his work, the landscape of his soul barren and exposed, the progress of his subjects the proving ground for his worth. Success is measured through the community (his mission) and the state of his marriage. The unconsciously beautiful Lizzie MacKenzie bedevils her husband, a temptress who speaks to his baser instincts and diverts him from his holy goal. Their newly-begun relationship breeds hope in a lonely woman's heart, but this man of God's demons run deep, not easily expelled by affection or compassion, Lizzie's most damning observation that Neil is "the bravest of churchmen and most cowardly of men".
His hope for redemption threatened at every turn, by the native population and at home, the MacKenzie's endure hardships and brief periods of happiness, children both living and dead, as Lizzie learns to embrace this gentle community, while Neil berates his parishioners with God's wrathful judgment. Recreating a unique civilization before the assault of those who dictate religious and political governance, the old ways are rejected by the Christian message, the natives' humanity found inferior by pompous do-gooders cloaked in the same hypocrisy that insulates Rev. MacKenzie from himself. The result is hypnotic, a love affair with the St. Kildans and a lonely minister's wife, with an isolated island coexisting with nature's fury- and the tragedy of an obsessed man's futile quest, pitiful against the panorama of life on Hirta. I am bereft at the end of this tale, saddened to leave the enchantment of a world so beautifully imagined. Luan Gaines/2011.