The Lightkeepers: A novel by Abby Geni and published in 2016 by Counterpoint Press
This is not the novel that brought me back to fiction, but I enjoyed it on so many levels that when I finished I felt a little lost because the journey had ended.
I came across The Lightkeepers on Barnes and Noble’s* Discover Great New Writers display at my local store, and noticed that it received the 2016 Fiction award. I am a sucker for a beautiful debut novel, and have had good luck with this list in the past, so I picked it up along with the runner up.
In The Lightkeepers, we find ourselves on the Farallon Islands, an archipelago off the coast of California, following Miranda, a nature photographer who is on a one-year residency to capture images of the exotic and dangerous landscape. She is joining a quirky group of scientists already established there (some are established permanently), living in arcadian conditions while documenting the animal life on the island. They are the only humans on the island, and their only contact with the outside world comes from a supply and mail “drop” every few weeks.
There is so much to enjoy here. This island has such great power over its group of residents that it becomes a character itself. The novel is broken into sections based on the animals’ mating seasons: shark season, whale season, seal season, and bird season. These seasons indicate which biologist is “in charge” based on their expertise and all other hands go to supporting the leading biologist during the surge of their specimens’ activity. Nature continuously shifts the power dynamics of the group, and the story becomes a study in human psychology.
Miranda is the only resident who is not a scientist and is observing the island much differently than her cohorts – through the lens of an artist. We see the beautiful, but sometimes harsh and bleak island through her eyes as she grapples with deep loss in her early life and pieces together the legends that surround the dark history of the island that brought it the nickname “the Islands of the Dead”. An interaction between Miranda and one of the scientists changes the course of her life and lays a veil of suspicion over the island; tensions rise as she figures out how to step forward into her future.
Let me say… Abby Geni can write! Her prose is easy to read and flows beautifully. One of my favorite passages comes from the beginning of Whale Season:
“They come in late autumn, passing the island in droves. I have seen them sliding through the sea like nightmares. Despite their size, the whales have an elusive quality. They camouflage themselves as waves, as clouds, as islets, as reflections of light. Blue whales. Grey whales. More than once I have found myself staring at what appears to be an empty ocean, only to observe a column of mist rising against the sky–a gasping inhalation–and realize the sea is full of bodies.”
I don’t think you can get much more earthy than that. I stopped and read it three times before I moved on, taking in the scene, and listening to the island around me.
This novel is an introspective one, and well suited to anyone who enjoys their stories be intertwined with the forces of nature. If you enjoy the slow unfolding of a narrative that savors its prose, then it is worth its weight in gold.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I have every intention of reading it again, and my mind often wanders back to the Island of the Dead. Feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you thought of the story.
*This post is not sponsored in any way.