About the Book
When Fred Lawson takes a summer job on St Kilda in 1927, little does he realise that he has joined the last community to ever live on that desolate, isolated island. Only three years later, St Kilda will be evacuated, the islanders near-dead from starvation. But for Fred, that summer is the bedrock of his whole life…
Chrissie Gillies is just nineteen when the researchers come to St Kilda. Hired as their cook, she can’t believe they would ever notice her, sophisticated and educated as they are. But she soon develops a cautious friendship with Fred, a friendship that cannot be allowed to develop into anything more…
Years later, to help deal with his hellish existence in a German prisoner of war camp, Fred tells the tale of the island and the woman he loved, but left behind. And Fred starts to wonder, where is Chrissie now? And does she ever think of him too?
Format: Hardcover (288 pages) Publisher: Corvus
Publication date: 5th March 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I absolutely loved Elisabeth Gifford’s last book The Good Doctor of Warsaw, so I approached her latest novel with eager anticipation; I was not disappointed. The Lost Lights of St Kilda is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read so far this year.
I confess I’d always thought St Kilda was an island but, as I learned from the book (and from the maps that form the gorgeous endpapers), it is in fact a group of islands. Hirta is the main island and the only one inhabited in 1927, when part of the book is set. However, to avoid confusion I’m going to refer to it, like the blurb does, as St Kilda.
I loved the descriptions of St Kilda and the details of the islanders’ life – “a daily struggle against nature”. (I wasn’t so sure about the island cuisine – ‘boiled oats with a salted puffin for flavour’ anyone?) I vaguely knew about the evacuation of the islanders but nothing of their history before that or the hardship of life there battling illness, cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time by storms, and living a hand to mouth existence from farming and the hunting of seabirds involving perilous climbs along cliff ledges. The sense of isolation is overwhelming. “Imagine a hill farm of some four square miles dropped in the middle of an Atlantic swell that even the sturdiest boats would think twice to sail and you have the situation of St Kilda.”
Moving between different timelines and points of view, each strand of the story – Chrissie’s life on St Kilda and Fred’s wartime experiences – would be enthralling enough in their own right. Woven together by the skilful hands of the author (much like a bolt of St Kildan tweed) they are simply wonderful.
Storytelling is a major element of the book, reflecting the oral tradition of passing down tales and legends from generation to generation; tales that are linked to the landscape, the sea and the weather. Chrissie gradually recounts her own story of growing up on St Kilda and her childhood friendship with laird’s son, Archie. Although used to being an object of fascination for summer visitors to the island, the St Kildans cannot know the chain of events that will be set in train by the return to the island of Archie and his friend, Fred, years later.
Fred develops an interest in recording the islanders’ stories and, through his study of geology, in telling the story of the island, created as it was by a volcanic eruption. As time goes by, that’s not Fred’s only interest. “All the heart and the beauty and the magic of that place distilled into the girl that was Chrissie.” Memories of his time on the island, and of Chrissie, will come to be a beacon of light in times of darkness and danger, giving him the courage and energy to battle on.
The Lost Lights of St Kilda is wonderfully romantic without being sentimental and a beautifully crafted depiction of a (now lost) community and way of life. It’s a story of love, betrayal, endurance and faith. “For what is faith but the sure hope of things that will come but are not yet seen.” I loved it and I’m sure all fans of historical fiction will too.
I received a review copy courtesy of Corvus and Readers First.
In three words: Romantic, emotional, compelling
About the Author
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has written articles for the Times and the Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three children and lives in Kingston upon Thames. (Photo/bio credit: publisher author page)