There are parts of this novel that read like poetry, and totally transport you to the sights and sounds of St Kilda. It took me back to a trip I made to the Farne Islands to visit the breeding puffins. I remembered the way these ungainly little birds wobble as they land, like little clowns with wings. The smell and sight of the birds droppings covering the rocks. The constant bird calls filling the air and whipping away on the wind. The author has an incredible ability to create moments of stillness where all of the reader’s senses are engaged. The sense of place she creates is incredible, and I could see why the islanders feel the landscape is part of them.
Our islander is a young girl called Chrissie and we see the island through her eyes. She is a child when we first meet her and as she experiences this incredible community we build up a picture too. She describes how they survive and in Chrissie’s childhood it is becoming even harder. In the summer the island has tourists, who will buy locally made cloth and other handmade items. The islanders order provisions to be brought by boat, but as tourist numbers diminish, the community has to be more self-sufficient. Island men have a unique and dangerous way of scaling the cliffs for seabirds to cull and use for food. They keep livestock for milk and eggs, but only as long as they can afford to feed them. This scratch living needs numbers of people to carry out the labour, and even in Chrissie’s childhood, young people are starting to leave. They’re looking for work and a better way of life, and they might send money home, but St Kilda needs young, strong bodies to keep going.
The islanders are always interested when the Laird visits and this time, he brings his young son Archie. The laird wants his son to understand the estate he will inherit and he’s left to roam with the children of the island. They take him to all their favourite hiding places, swimming spots and up on the cliffs where they hunt for fulmars. Chrissie is a little bit star struck by Archie. His blond, fair, looks are striking and to a young girl living in poverty he must seem almost fantastical. This visit is on Chrissie’s mind, when years later Archie visits the island again. This time he is undertaking research for university and he brings his friend Fred with him. How will Chrissie feel now that they are both older?
Gifford slips between Chrissie’s childhood and a narrative that takes place in the 1940s. We see Chrissie’s life, now on the mainland, with her daughter Rachel. What happened to bring her away from the St Kilda community? We also hear from Fred, desperately trying to get to Spain after escaping the fate of many soldiers in the Scots regiment s a POW. He has to trust many people along the way, but there is leak in the chain of people willing to help POW’s escape over the Spanish border. When Fred encounters a familiar face, he wonders whether he can trust him, but really has no choice if he wants to get back.
At the centre of the novel is a misunderstanding that left me, as always, mentally pleading with them to talk to each other. I was left feeling I couldn’t trust a particular character involved in this and I was suspicious throughout the whole novel. However, what Gifford does is show us that people are complex and even those with bad character can carry out heroic acts. He most compelling character though is the island of St Kilda in all its rugged and windswept beauty. I think the most heartbreaking part of the novel though is the rift opening up between the St Kildan community and the land they call home. Everything they love about their home is what makes their way of life impossible. Gifford’s words are a poem, an elegy for a dying way of life and the grief of a community torn from their homeland.
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