The Chapel at the End of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

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On the face of it, this book would seem to have a limited potential audience as the Chapel mentioned is a tiny building on Orkney. Having said that, the themes in this book are much more international and timeless. It is the story of men and women at war, prisoners on an island, and betrayal of friends. The decoration of a special building takes on a mystical purpose as prisoners see the face of those they love and fear in the face of an otherwise beautiful Madonna.

The story opens with Rosa and Emilo being welcomed back to Orkney to celebrate the survival of the Chapel constructed by Emilo and other Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. They were engaged when Emilo entered the Italian army and was almost immediately captured and sent to a bleak camp on an island which felt like the edge of the world, such was the weather and isolation. While he treasures letters and pictures from Italy, he increasingly struggles to believe he will ever return. His friend Bertolo, also a prisoner, feels more isolated and with less purpose as his family in Italy struggle. Rosa has her own problems, as the invading Germans turn from allies to oppressors in her native town. Her wartime experience is too much linked to the forces of resistance for safety, and ironically the non-combatants who did not join the army are in more danger. Sliding loyalties and daily challenges mean that her war experience feels more brutal even though she is in her home with family.

This is a well written novel which deserves a good readership. It achieves much in its mainly parallel narrative and covers the fears of an effectively occupied country as well as the isolation of a sparsely peopled island. There is much about the struggle of maintaining life and morale in a place where food is short and materials to beautify a chapel nearly non-existent. Anyone who visits the chapel today marvels at the location and the sheer effort of transforming very basic buildings into a holy, beautiful place.  The idea of the ingenuity of the decoration from discarded metal and homemade paint is very impressive, even if the real artists are not mentioned. Rosa’s survival is assured throughout, but her silent suffering mirrors the experience of many civilians in the face of total war. McKenzie has a light touch which does not increase the realistic events to high drama; this makes them in a way more readable.

As someone who has visited the chapel on several occasions and found it a very moving tribute to the prisoners, this is a memorable book which I would recommend as an understated but truthful account of a place, and a world, at war.

I discovered this book at the wonderful Orkney library during the early part of our holiday. Northernvicar made a special journey to the house at Skara Brae to get me a copy to bring back, published by John Murray, so thank you very much to him. I may put up an extra post with some pictures from our Orkney odyssey,  but in the meantime you can read for many photos of the Italian Chapel itself.