WORLD War II has generated umpteen number of works of fiction that reflect the emotional trauma and the huge human tragedies across continents. Kirsten McKenzie’s ‘The Chapel at the Edge of the World’ is the story of a group of Italian Prisoners of War (PoW) who were held in a camp in an island in England. The PoWs, young men who had given up their lives for the country are being wasted in the island, under harsh geographic conditions. The hero of the novel Emilio has a picture of Madonna, given to him by his mother when he was leaving home. He is an artist. The British officers ‘kindly’ give the prisoners a space to build a structure and the prisoners decide to build a chapel. Everybody pitches in with their talent. Someone is a carpenter, someone is a plumber, workman. Emilio paints Madonna on the wall.
Emilio had left behind his fiancée Rosa, his childhood friend. Rosa’s mother runs a hotel in their village, which is a holiday resort. The Germans are filling up in the resort and the hotel also gets an officer. Another of Rosa’s childhood friend is an activist, whom the Germans are looking for. Rosa nearly falls in love with him. But he and his uncle are caught and shot dead in public for ‘betraying’ the German cause. Jews are rounded up from the hotel and taken away. There is a poignant scene, when a toddler crawls up to the German officer, attracted by his shining leather shoe. The child is part of the group of Jews who are collected and sent to unknown destinations.
When war is over, prisoners are released, after nearly three years, Emilio returns home. The narration begins with the men from the camp revisiting the Chapel, only a few of them are alive, for a documentary by the BBC.
In real, there is a chapel in an island called Lamb Holm in the Orkney Islands, where 550 Italian prisoners were brought in 1942. It was then called Camp 60. The chapel, built with salvaged material has now become a tourist destination. The author’s note says that some of the incidents in the book have been culled out from the archives and are real incidents. This is Kirsten’s first novel. It is an engaging narration, and at times very touching.
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