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.
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