Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Emma's Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

1927: When Fred Lawson takes a summer job on St Kilda, little does he realise that he has joined the last community to ever live on that beautiful, isolated island. Only three years later, St Kilda will be evacuated, the islanders near-dead from starvation. But for Fred, that summer - and the island woman, Chrissie, whom he falls in love with - becomes the very thing that sustains him in the years ahead.

1940: Fred has been captured behind enemy lines in France and finds himself in a prisoner-of-war camp. Beaten and exhausted, his thoughts return to the island of his youth and the woman he loved and lost. When Fred makes his daring escape, prompting a desperate journey across occupied territory, he is sustained by one thought only: finding his way back to Chrissie.

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Many thanks to Corvus via NetGalley for my copy of The Lost Lights of St. Kilda to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Quite a number of years ago I stumbled across the writing of Elisabeth Gifford when I found her d├ębut novel Secrets of the Sea House in the library not long after it was published. It is a book that has always stayed with me. Subsequently, I really enjoyed her second book Return to Fourwinds but since then I have not read anything by this author. Her newest book The Lost Lights of St. Kilda has reminded me just what an incredible author Elisabeth Gifford really is.

The cover for this book is haunting and beautiful and its only when you finish the book that you appreciate its relevance to the overall themes and the plot. Admittedly, at first I did find the story difficult to get into as I found the pace quite slow and I found myself wanting something to happen or it was almost as if I want to reach the climax long before it actually occurred. But just as I reached the halfway point it was like I had a realisation that this was a very special book that needed to be slow in its pace and I needed to take my time whilst reading it in order to savour every glorious word and image that was coming forth with every turn of the page.

The author was in fact weaving an incredible love story but what sets this book apart from any other in the genre, and makes it much more than just a tale of people, is the spectacular and imaginative descriptions of an island community clinging on to the old ways of life isolated on their own unique and remote archipelago cast adrift from the mainland and the modern ways of the world. There are a small band of people that follow the traditions of many hundreds of years where heritage and custom is so important and amongst them is a young girl called Chrissie whose life will be changed for ever by the arrival of the son of the owner of the island Archie and his college friend Fred.

The story develops along two frames that of the summer of 1927 and the years leading up to 1930. But also during World War Two we follow Fred and his experiences of life on the run after his squad The Cameron Highlanders were forced to admit defeat in a small area of France and retreat. I love dual timeline stories and normally the books which I read and feature this aspect have a modern day setting and a setting during the past. But here the timeframes weren't too far apart and both focused on the same characters instead of some distant relative in the present day trying to solve a mystery of the past. So this allowed real development in terms of both plots and characters not to mention the imagery created throughout which only added to the story and helped everything become so clear and vivid in your mind.

The parts of the story that featured Fred as he was trying to make his way back to England during World War Two were incredibly well written and connected so well back to his time spent on the island. Fred is fuelled by his past experiences and his love for a woman is what drives him on as he escapes from his first set of captors and wants to try and get back to his homeland. He now knows more than ever that that summer many years ago was a pivotal point in is life and that mistakes were made. If he is given the chance again he wants to make amends and to let his feelings be known. Through such difficult and challenging times Fred keeps battling forward and with the help of the French resistance he believes he can make it home.

Recollections of good times and the love that is only ever increasing for Chrissie who stole his heart on a remote Scottish island are what sustain him and keep him taking one more step through the fear, pain, terror and hunger. I found Fred's journey to be interesting and riveting and I desperately hoped that all could come good for him but there were many dangers to pass and land to traverse before happiness could hope to be sought. He is all alone in the world with no relatives left to miss or mourn him but he hopes that Chrissie might be out there somewhere hoping and praying that one day they shall be reunited. Having been forced to leave the island Chrissie could be anywhere but her memory implants itself on Fred's mind and she is the reason that he must make it.

In 1940, we learn of Chrissie's whereabouts and how her situation has changed. Someone is asking questions which force her to recollect the past and in doing so the reader is transported to St. Kilda. What follows is a simply magnificent depiction of life on a series of small rugged islands so cut off from everything else far away from civilisation, 100 miles from the mainland. It's lonely, windswept and full of hardship but oh so beautiful. There are no words in which to describe the way the author brought the island to life. I could picture everything so clearly in my head, the high cliffs which the men scaled in summer to catch birds which would sustain the islanders for the winter. The cattle grazing in small windswept fields. The bothies where families lived and worked and during the winter spun wool by the fire and light of the oil lamps lit by the oil of the fulmar birds. Weather played a huge role in this story and as I sat reading I could hear the gales echoing across the island and the massive waves crashing onto shore during the winter months when no ship could get near the island completely cutting off those who lived there. The island was a place of rare beauty, full of history and traditions which the dwindling number of residents cling to.

It was remarkable how ingenuitive they were and how ways and methods passed down from generation to generation still existed but yet the call of the modern world was beginning to make itself known. Three years after Fred and Archie leave the island after a summer spent recording, digging and studying for their respective archaeology and geology degrees the islanders themselves will be removed from the place they called home near to starvation and death. But that is in the future and for now Fred and Archie ingratiate themselves into island life and for Fred, Chrissie will capture his heart but miscommunications, secrets, lies and misunderstandings will play a pivotal role in the shaping of several peoples futures and the course of this story.

The Lost Lights of St. Kilda was a fascinating read and you know the author has done impeccable research and brought a forgotten time to life when you want to go and look up yourself about the island. When I did this, it's testament to Elisabeth Gifford that the image of the island, it's houses, the bay and its residents that I had imagined in my head were very very similar to pictures I found online. Never before has a story created such realistic images in my mind and I really do think this is what helped me appreciate the story unfolding before my eyes. Honestly I didn't truly understand and appreciate just how incredible this book was until I was nearing the end. Faith, hard work, devotion, tradition, a constant, real and true love were all at the heart of this story and each feeling and sentiment comes across in spades.

Chrissie is a young woman who has no experience of the outside world bar interacting with those who come to visit as tourists during the summer so you may think her head was turned by the arrival of two young men one of which she had briefly known in her youth and who had made promises perhaps challenging to keep. But Chrissie followed her heart but would this lead to trouble and devastation? Can she or should she take a risk and change or is the call of the island too strong and the traditions they have there and their way of life just too scared to forgo so readily and easily? Or will Chrissie and many others' future be determined by circumstances out of their control? Will herself and Fred find the redemption they so desperately seek following events of that fateful summer? You must read this brilliant book to discover the answers.

It's very hard to do The Lost Lights of St.Kilda any justice but I hope in some small way I have done so here. This will undoubtedly be a book that come December 2020 will feature on many people's books of the year list. It's a deeply moving and satisfying read with a powerful romance story at its heart. One not to be missed.

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