I’ve only visited the Italian Chapel on Orkney once – and that was almost twenty years ago but it’s a place that makes an impression. I tried to find some decent pictures of the chapel to decorate this review with, but none of the one’s I found on line came anywhere near to doing it justice. (Highland Park whisky used to have a decent one on their website, but it’s gone now.)
The thing about the chapel is that outside it really is just Nissan huts with a cement facade. It’s a pretty facade, but it doesn’t really prepare you for what’s inside. When you step through the door though you leave Orkney and enter Italy; the Chapel boasts some really impressive trompe l’oeil – at seventeen I’d never seen anything quite like it – and nor have I since, but sadly it seems you have to go and see it – I can’t show you.
Anyway all this and more was at the back of my mind when I picked up Kirsten McKenzie’s book. Reviews have been mixed, or at least mixed enough to make me think twice about buying so I phoned the nice people at John Murray and pushed my luck for a copy. They very kindly promised to oblige and I waited hopefully, sadly no book appeared so I phoned again and they obliged again. I have long held dark suspicions of my posty – an unnaturally cheerful man who whistles whilst he works, it’s disarming but sinister (in my opinion) but second time round the book arrived and even better proved to be worth the wait.
‘The Chapel At The Edge Of The World’ is Kirsten McKenzie’s debut novel which I think shows, but she’s definitely a writer worth watching. This is one separated couple’s war – Emilio sets off to fight and soon ends up a prisoner first in North Africa and later On Orkney. Rosa left at home has a slightly more eventful time fending off amorous Nazis and almost accidentally becoming involved with the resistance.
Emilio deals with imprisonment by ignoring it and trying to ignore news of the war – instead as an artist he immerses himself in creating the chapel, and holding on to the idea of all he’s left behind in the hope that it will still be there when he returns. Rosa says goodbye without any real expectation of getting Emilio back assuming he will be lost either to another woman, to a wider experience, or possibly killed. What she isn’t really prepared for is what happens – his being taken prisoner which leaves her in a sort of limbo for the duration of the war. To say much more would be to give too much away about Rosa but her part of the story is excellent; I like that it’s the woman who has gone to war here – or at least had the war come to her, whilst the man stays locked up, uncomfortable but basically safe. It’s an effective role reversal and makes a nice change from reading about life for the girls left behind on the home front.
Emilio’s story I had a bit more trouble with. I think McKenzie does a convincing job on the P.O.W experience but I felt she got a bit carried away with the greyness of it all – to the point that it started to niggle. Everything about Orkney is grey in this book – over four years it seems never to be summer – just one endless grey winter. The sky is grey with stars, the Aurora creates a kind of grey dawn, the long summer nights (on a rare appearance) are grey, and the ground is covered in dead grey heather. I get it, I really do, I believe in the grey, I’ve seen the grey, I feel the grey, but I also know the aurora as a great sweeping curtain of billowing coloured light (not at all grey) and I’m not having a sky greyed by stars either. The sun does shine in the north albeit rarely and the insistence on grey seems heavy handed – more obvious perhaps because the rest of the book is so spot on. Still it’s a tiny niggle about an otherwise absorbing read. The Orkney side of the story although fictionalised closely follows actual events and the Italian half reads as equally likely. I think this is a more than promising debut – I await McKenzie’s next novel with interest, she’s certainly challenged my prejudice against contemporary writers. (A quick look on amazon suggests that book number two is a ship board romp with pirates and a strong female lead – normally I’d be suspicious but as ‘The Chapel At The End Of The World’ was so good I’m actually enthusiastic. Both books have fantastic cover art too.)