Book Review: The Lightkeepers
by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s debut novel comes by its enormous atmospheric vitality honestly: it’s set in the Farallon Islands, a desolate little archipelago of largely-unhabitable rocks 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco. The Farallons are a genuinely, if bleakly, atmospheric place, the haunt of seals and gulls, cruised part of the year by gigantic great white sharks and, as The Lightkeepers accurately describes, not exactly a garden spot at any time of year:
The lap of waves fills the air. The archipelago is shrouded in mist today. In the summer months, the fog is often present. There are no balmy, golden afternoons here, no sunbathing. The horizon is obscured, the sun a damp pinwheel.
“There was a crudeness about their contours,” thinks Geni’s main character Miranda. “God might have made the world, but he seemed to have deputized his underage stepson to fashion the Farallon Islands out of some lesser brand of clay.”
Miranda is a nature photographer who’s on a one-year assignment to photograph the Farallons in all their seasons. She’s air-lifted in and set to live alongside the small company of scientists who maintain an observation station on one of the marginally more-habitable islands. In a somewhat labored narrative device, Miranda tells the story of her stay on the island in a string of letters she writes to her deceased mother. This might not be anything a normal person would do – it might in fact be a device that announces itself as “novelistic gimmick” – but it does allow Geni to dramatize a good deal of Miranda’s earlier life, and quite a bit of that is well worth reading.
But it’s the Farallons that command the novel, and not just the inevitable human drama, although Geni makes sure to heap on lots of that – Miranda is assaulted soon after she arrives at the station, and her assailant is found dead soon after that. Since nobody can come or go from the island, the resulting air of dread and mutual suspicious is as thick as morning fog, and Geni further complicates this murder-mystery plot with a ghost story that’s surprising well done, especially considering all the other moving parts the author has in play.
The gray and overwhelming natural world of the novel’s setting, however, lays heavy over all those moving parts. Since the science outpost on the island is a shark-spotting station, Miranda quickly becomes immersed in shark biology and shark lore:
I have learned too much about white sharks lately. I know that, as a species, they predate the existence of trees. I know that they have survived four global mass extinctions. I knew that they are born live, not hatched out of eggs like most fish. The pups emerge fully formed, about four feet long, with their predatory instincts already buzzing. White sharks have their own sixth sense, used for detecting prey: they can pick up electrical impulses generated by muscles in motion. They can also smell blood in the water from a mile away.
Readers may groan a little when they soon find out that one of the quirky scientists on the island is in the habit of going scuba-diving just for kicks (after all, what could possibly go wrong?), but it’s not just the sharks that inhabit the waters around the Farallons, and Geni does an equally evocative job with all the other fauna in the region, including the many species of great whales that visit in season:
They are not predators, and they are not prey. They exist outside of the food chain. In some ways, they exist outside of normal space and time. They live in a realm of large, slow things – tides, storms, and magnetic currents. They often plunge into the inky depths of the ocean, down where the sunlight fails. They inhabit a blue world, away from land, dipping from water to air and back again, sliding between darkness and glow.
It’s tempting to say that The Lightkeepers likewise slides between darkness and glow, and it would be partly true; Geni has crafter a remarkably assured debut, and she’s filled it with voices – family drama, murder mystery, nature-writing, Gothic claustrophobia, and even some gallows humor. And more importantly, she’s found a clean, at times almost poetic prose-line that’s compulsively readable – this book is a natural one-sitting read. It’s cantilevered a trifle awkwardly with an overloaded plot, but part of that is just the natural instinct of a first-time novelist – a writer as smart as this one will clearly grow out of it. And in the meantime, it’s mighty good fun.