Atlantic Books Corvus| 05 Mar 2020| 288p| Review copy| 3*
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, memories of that summer – and the island woman, Chrissie, with whom he falls in love – will never leave him.
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.
The Lost Lights of St Kilda is a sweeping love story that crosses oceans and decades. It is a moving and deeply vivid portrait of two lovers, a desolate island and the extraordinary power of hope in the face of darkness.
For those unaware, St Kilda is a Scottish island in the Atlantic Ocean which had been continuously inhabited from the Bronze Age up until 1930 when the island was evacuated due to an irretrievable population crash and the logistical difficulty of getting necessary supplies to an island essentially cut off during the Winter.
The Lost Lights of St Kilda is historical fiction set mainly in two time periods, 1927 and the 1940s, following the story of Chrissy, a native of the island and Fred and Archie, visiting students from Cambridge University. At first I wasn’t really involved in the plot which is basically a romance, the story of a love triangle complete with all the misunderstandings and anguish that involved. I found it rather predictable, But the highlights of the book for me are the descriptions of St Kilda, its history, the importance to the islanders of the bird life, and their isolation and the poverty they endured. The account of the island’s evacuation is particularly moving.
After a slow start, the book picks up pace and I became more involved in the story. It’s a book of two halves really – the story of the last years of life on St Kilda and a war story. It’s very well researched and Elisabeth Gifford explains in her acknowledgements that the characters are loosely based on the people who lived on St Kilda whilst remaining fictional, although some of the characters featuring in the chapters about Fred’s wartime experience are based on real people. She lists the books she used for her research – books about the island, about Atlantic seabirds and journals and biographies of soldiers who were captured during the Second World War and their escapes, all of which brought her novel to life for me.
My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.