Book Oxygen Review
Published by Corvus 5 March 2020
276pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
St Kilda, a small group of volcanic islands and towering sea stacks, is the most remote part of the UK, lying some 40 miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Now home to one million seabirds, the archipelago was inhabited for 4,000 years, until 1930 when its last 36 residents were relocated to mainland Scotland as the tiny community could no longer survive in its splendid isolation.
Elisabeth Gifford has taken this ‘island on the edge of the world’ as her setting for a touching story of love and courage in the face of adversity. It is 1927, and Archie and Fred, students at Cambridge University, arrive on St Kilda to research and write their end-of-term papers. Archie is the son of the laird who owns St Kilda, Fred the nephew of one of the laird’s staff. They meet nineteen-year-old Chrissie, who has never left the island, nor had any desire to do so. Chrissie had a crush on Archie when she was a young girl and his arrival on St Kilda stirs up a whirlpool of emotions. Fred sees past Chrissie’s naivety and falls in love with her, knowing that he stands in the shadow of the more glamorous Archie.
Then the action switches to France in 1940. Fred has been captured and tortured by the enemy, but has escaped, to make a long and perilous journey through France, hoping to make it home in one piece. He comforts himself with memories of that magical summer on St Kilda, and the woman he left behind.
Gifford switches the narrative between the summer on St Kilda and the war scenes in France, fashioning a spellbinding story predominantly from Chrissie and Fred’s points of view. Slowly, what happened during that idyllic summer is revealed, as are the dramatic consequences of the decisions made.
The novel’s descriptions of a unique way of life are fascinating. The St Kildans’ complete reliance on catching vast numbers of fulmars for their meat, oil and feathers is reflected in the risks the men take to capture the birds. Their feet bare, they scale the towering cliffs with only one man grasping a rope, suspending them in limbo between triumph and disaster.
There is ample evidence too of ancient civilizations living on the archipelago which Archie explores whilst Fred studies unique rock formations. The community takes turns in hosting ceilidhs; dancing, singing, and storytelling taking place in smoky, stone houses on ‘main street’. The older inhabitants regale the younger ones with folklore passed down through the generations by word of mouth. The community becomes smaller and smaller with each passing year. People die who could be saved if there were a hospital within reach, while youngsters leave to find work on the mainland.
Gifford’s writing is lyrical, drawing the reader into the extraordinary world of St Kilda, with its exceptional beauty and close-knit community. She does not shy away from the many hardships of island life, nor the inherent dangers: high winds can blow sheep (and people) over the giant cliffs to certain death. The relationships are finely wrought, the love triangle between Chrissie, Archie and Fred especially. These are three-dimensional characters and it is easy to invest in their lives and loves. Gifford has written an unusual novel, a romance full of heart and soul, without resorting to schmaltz, cliché or purple prose. The magnificent front cover of the book hints at the extraordinary novel within. This sweeping story is a pleasure to read and Gifford should be showered with prizes for her efforts.