It’s a real delight today to be joining the blog tour and sharing my review of The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford: published in hardcover and for kindle today (5th March) by Corvus Books, the paperback will follow in October. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, to the publishers for my advance e-copy (provided via netgalley) – and to everyone involved for introducing me to a book I entirely fell in love with.
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.
The Lost Lights of St Kilda is a sweeping love story that will cross 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.
I’ve started this review several times now, struggling for words to fully convey how much I loved this book – and I’m beginning to doubt that I have the vocabulary I need. So instead, I threw a few words, phrases, feelings and thoughts onto the page, and hope I’ve pulled them together into something coherent. But just in case I haven’t managed it, and for the avoidance of doubt, this book moved me so deeply, and kept me entirely gripped from its first page to its last: the author’s story-telling is simply exceptional, the way she creates her characters together with the conditions they live in, the way she made me feel. I haven’t read a book by Elisabeth Gifford before, and I plan to add every one to my reading list: I really can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover her writing, and I’m hungry to read more.
So first, I think, a bare outline of this dual timeline story. One of its threads, perhaps the most dominant one, is set within the community eking out a living on the island of St Kilda. It’s a close community, but a dying one – every bleak winter brings its people closer to starvation, as they depend on their meagre crops, their animals, and the birds they’ve been able to catch and preserve to supplement their diets, when the passing ships no longer call. The images are stunning – none more than the dangers of gathering chicks from the cliff face, barefooted, suspended by ropes, taking advantage of that brief window of opportunity.
The descriptions of the natural world and the impact of the seasons are totally exceptional – coupled with the privilege of experiencing the realities of the precarious lives of the people, this becomes so much more than a book you read, it becomes a disappearing way of life you experience with every sense. Small things had me on the edge of tears: the attitude of the summer visitors with their sense of entitlement and superiority; the intricacies of creating a multi-hued piece of tweed; the joy brought by the delivery of a piano that then wouldn’t fit through any doorway; the way they could only summon help in an emergency by sending messages in small ‘boats’, hoping they would be found wherever they ran ashore. It was unlike me, but I also moved by the part religion played in the community’s lives, and the debate about how their belief could possibly be so strong when their existence was hanging on by a fraying thread – and that transmuted into an examination of love and loneliness that continued to reverberate, and broke my heart.
There’s an entirely enthralling love story here too. Chrissie is a wonderful heroine at the story’s centre – strong, intelligent, resilient, entirely wedded to the life she lives and the community she’s part of – who grows out of her childhood infatuation with the feckless Archie, instead finding a love that’s deep and real with his companion Fred. It’s a love that makes you ache inside because of the sheer impossibility of a happy ending – their lives are so different, so separate, their beliefs so very different. There are twists and turns to their joint story – there in 1927 St Kilda – that have you in pieces, hoping beyond hope that there might just be a way.
And then we have the other thread of the story – the 1940s, Fred’s escape from wartime internment, and his gripping and perilous journey home, with Chrissie as his focus for survival. And I think it’s fair to say that I found Fred’s story every bit as enthralling as Chrissie’s life on St Kilda and the way it worked out – no wrenching, no regrets on departing from Chrissie’s life, a quite wonderful story of survival, the kindness of strangers, extremes of danger, depths of despair, all threaded through with a glimmer of hope and that longing and yearning for the woman he loved. There are some real surprises to the story too, perfectly handled, the need for trust against the threat of treachery, with deeply-seated emotions painfully brought to the surface.
This book really was entirely exceptional – the finest of writing, the keenest of observation underpinned by a love for her subject, setting and characters, the most delicate touch with emotional content, and a story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget. I don’t need to say “one of my books of the year”, do I? I really defy anyone not to love it as much as I did.
About the author
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. Her bestselling novel, Secrets of the Sea House, was shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association’s Debut Crown for Best First Historical Novel in 2014. She is married with three children, and lives in Kingston upon Thames.