Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Karen Swan’s five part historical series, identified as the Wild Isle series, is based upon the dramatic evacuation of the Scottish island St Kilda in the summer of 1930. This may be the reason for the air of authenticity that accompanies the book. It is the summer of 1929 and Mhairi Mackinnon has a problem perhaps unique to this part of the world and time. The curse of living in such a remote region is that, if the father miscalculates, the eldest girl has to find a husband. Her father cannnot afford to support a large family.
Mhairi’s options are limited, the most promising being Donald, a business acquaintance who lives on a neighboring island. He favours Mhairi to complete the vacancy that exists on his island. He plans to ask Mhairi when he makes the final crossing before winter shuts down any further travel possibilities. Mhairi begins her search and discovers feelings for Alex McKinnon. She becomes engaged to him only to discover that he would rather force his wishes on a lady. The final months on the island are filled with dread. The time of departure draws near when a body is discovered and the finger of suspicion is unleashed.
This is a fine story, rooted in islander mythology but realistic nevertheless. The characters are real, they react to happenings, adverse or otherwise, as normal people would respond. They are not so far removed in time that readers need to adjust their thinking or aspirations. Donald is a frustrated boyfriend who, far from tearing her head from her shoulders, reaches a civilised response to Mhairi’s predicament.
The fight in the Prologue is well written, setting out and succeeding in showing what a rude, uncultivated society we’re facing. “‘Next time I’ll break your legs, do you hear me?’ Donald shouted – his body flexed, fists pulled, jaw balling, eyes blazing – as he waited for the man to stagger off and disappear from his sight” (1). It is a society where perceived encroachments on another’s liberty are met with direct force.
The landscape, whether cultivated or untouched, is as rough as the men who inhabit it. ‘The nauseating smell of rotten meat had settled over the isle, getting into the villagers’ hair and clothes and driving her ma spare’ (5). Winter is particularly rough. The wind could be particularly ferocious, funnelling down the slopes at speeds that lifted rocks on the beach and tore the roofs from the houses. Yet while the landscape shown as wild, and the people goodhearted but rougher still, it is the story that holds interest over all other conflicting data.
Karen Swan has all the skills to maintain control over an emotion-charged story such as this. It is a story that could get away, out of the control of its writer. However, a masterly hand has guided it all the way. Congratulations are due to both author and publisher for a finely-controlled effort.
By Karen Swan
$34.99; 433 pp