Sunday book review – Waterfalls of Stars by Roseanne Alexander


Reviewed by Ian Carter

This book looked a rather daunting prospect when it first arrived, with its striking cover of a storm-scarred sea and more than 300 pages of fairly small print, uninterrupted by photographs.

It tells the very personal story of the first ten years of an adult life, from a hesitant, uncertain abandonment of normality on the mainland, through to the return a decade later. The book is, primarily, about the author’s response to the challenges of living and working (year-round) with her husband in a place far removed from ‘normal’ civilisation; something not to be underestimated in the days before phones, internet connection or even electricity had reached the island.

It is not a book with many facts and figures, and there are no summaries of research projects or survey results. Yet there is plenty of insight into the wildlife of the island from the day-to-day observations, described with real affection and an enviable talent for capturing the moment. The Grey Seals and breeding seabirds are a recurring theme, the latter hard to escape when living in a house surrounded by seabird burrows. Manx Shearwaters wail incessantly from their nests in the cellar (just feet below the bedroom floorboards) and in poor weather smack into (and occasionally through) the windows. Puffins clatter around on the roof and rogue individuals bring soot, rather than broken glass, into the house.

Whilst the book is often about the routine, even mundane, activities of day-to-day existence, the ten years were not without a few adventures to provide some stark contrasts. There is a near calamitous boat trip or two (or three), the abject misery of dealing with oil spills and their consequences, and even a traumatic encounter with human mortality. There are other contrasts too. The busy summers with their visitors, volunteers and PhD students, followed by the isolation of the long winter when weeks go by with little human contact. The exhilarating, pristine beauty of the island and its wildlife, suddenly wrecked by pollution and tangles of fishing nets. The calm, sunny days with glassy seas, and the frequent storms, pummelling the house and isolating the island, sometimes for days or even weeks on end.

A book of this sort relies almost entirely on the quality and power of the writing and the resulting empathy with the author. It helped that I am fond of islands and intrigued by the idea of this kind of lifestyle. If you are neither of these things then, possibly, this book may not be for you. But it was a book that held my attention throughout and was a real pleasure to read.

Waterfalls of Stars: My ten years of the Island of Skomer by Rosanne Alexander is published by SerenBooks.



Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review and it’s now out in paperback.

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  1. Bob Harris says:

    I'm reading this book at the moment having come across it by chance while browsing Waterstones. Two things from your review that I agree with - first and foremost 'empathy with the author and a love of islands' and secondly, being a scientist by employment and nature, I missed any references of/to the on-going scientific study of the island (and the reason that she and her new husband were there in the first place). Nevertheless a very nice and pleasant read which will be read again and again over time.

  2. Norman McCanch says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book Mark, I have just ordered it. As it happens I knew Roseanne and Mike during this period and had a small part to play in their adventure. Having already been a lighthouse keeper ( in Pembrokeshire within sight of Skomer) I went on to spend four years on the Calf of Man as warden year round. While I recognise the previous comment about the lack of scientific reporting, that info is available in loads of other places and what many people never understand is the complexity and charm, not to mention hardships of living on an island. I look forward to reading it!

  3. Ian Carter says:

    Bob - Yes it's very much a book about the lifestyle rather than an in-depth account of the wildlife, though birds and mammals do get plenty of mentions as you would expect. As Norman says, the more detailed information is widely available. The most recent account of the island's wildlife is an excellent article in the May issue of 'British Birds' - that has plenty of facts and figures, as well as a nice account of the history of monitoring and research on Skomer, spanning many decades.


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