Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Chapel at the Edge of the World

Waterstone's kindly sent me a proof copy of The Chapel at the Edge of the World by Kirsten McKenzie to review. A competent debut, the literary premise is entirely original, albeit inspired by true events in Orkney, on the tiny island of Lamb Holm. During World War II a young Italian couple, Emilio and Rosa, are separated during the conflict; he is enlisted and then becomes a PoW, sent to Orkney where he and other PoWs built a chapel from salvaged materials and paint, whilst his fiancée remains on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, working in her mother's hotel and later becoming involved in the partisan resistance movement.

The narrative of the novel shifts between the engaged pair, with one chapter narrated by Emilio's fellow PoW, Bertoldo, and is framed by the couple making a visit to Lamb Holm -which is now a tourist attraction- many years later and being interviewed by a journalist. I found the introduction, with Emilio as an old man, the most thought-provoking part of the novel. Emilio is apparently suffering from dementia in his advanced age and I found the loss of his war memories tragic; once the keepers of memories forget or die then who is there left to remember? This is why historical documents and historical fiction are so important; although I did wonder at times how accurate the author's research was, especially when it came to depicting the actions of Italy's occupying German soldiers.

The novel's title is rather misleading, as it is less about the Chapel being built and the Madonna frescoes that Emilio paints -to alleviate the boredom of the PoWs and to provide colour and hope- than it is about the lives the characters lead during the War; it is however a romantic image. The principal characters could be more engaging, at times they appeared one-dimensional, especially in comparison to the more strongly drawn supporting characters of Bertoldo and Pietro, Emilio and Rosa's childhood friend who is heavily involved in the Italian resistance movement and whom Rosa falls in love with. Some of the themes could have better realised too; McKenzie had an abundance of good ideas but some of the threads didn't seem to lead anywhere, as in the fate of Rachele and her father, Jews attempting to escape across the border to Switzerland, and also of Henriech, the young German soldier.

The bleak landscape of both the Scottish archipelago and Lake Como in Winter are well conveyed and certainly contribute to the overall darkness of the time. Whilst reading I was reminded of both The Return by Victoria Hislop and Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, without the former's suspense and engagement and the latter's literary merits and great love story. I admire Kirsten MacKenzie's attempts but ultimately I found the novel to be lacking, but bearing in mind that it was a proof copy I read and flaws could be rectified before publication.


verity said...

That sounds interesting, I shall look out for that when it arrives in Waterstones (I always spend working Saturday lunchtimes having a browse). How do you get hold of proof copies?!

Savidge Reads said...

This sounds really interesting. How on earth did you get proof copies from Waterstones I wasnt aware they did this and am most envious.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Verity & Simon! Waterstone's have only recently introduced review copies for customers. If you are a cardholder then go to offers and opt for "preview new fiction". As for non-cardholders, I'm not sure how to find it on website; I used a link via the facebook fantasy. Both have different processes for requests. It's pot-luck but a great opportunity.

verity said...

Exciting - I am a cardholder so will have to investigate that!

Darlene said...

My in-laws were both prisoners in labour camps in Germany, in fact, that's how they met. They didn't talk about the past much but the little that was said was unbelievable. There seems to be a renewed interest of that period in time, or perhaps it's just me. Let's hope the material being written about it is worthy.

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, that's quite the history together. I can't even begin to imagine the stories they have told. I believe that these things should be written down but I can also appreciate immensely why survivors would be reluctant to re-live the experiences.
The subject matter has amazing potential in the literary sphere, but I am afraid to say that Kirsten McKenzie didn't do it justice; she was certainly stronger historically on the resistance detail than she was about the labour camp, but that may be as a result of lack of resources.