I’d had The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni on my wishlist for quite a while and last Christmas I received it as a present from my Mum. I’d almost forgotten that I had it on my wishlist, but I was delighted to receive it. Perhaps it was the cold January weather, but the beautiful cover and promise of a tale set on a desolate island called out to me. It was the perfect time of year to read this book.
The Lightkeepers was published in 2016 and is Abby Geni’s debut novel. It follows Miranda, a nature photographer in her thirties, who has gone to live in the remote Farallon Islands for a year. The only other humans living on this archipelago are six biologists, each of whom have chosen to live in this isolated world for their own unique reasons. A couple of months after her arrival, Miranda is raped. The book explores the consequences of this trauma against a backdrop of the deadly and beautiful nature of the Farallon Islands.
One of the driving forces behind Miranda’s decision to go to the Farallon Islands is the grief that has affected her since the death of her mother in her teenage years. Miranda partly works through this grief by writing letters to her mother. Letters that will never reach their recipient. Letters that will remain in the dead letter office, if even sent at all; some letters she will leave in the wild, some she will destroy. I found this a touching method of dealing with grief and of keeping a loved one close after their death. As the story progresses the book explores how different people confront grief, how they learn to live with it or how they run from it.
The traumas that Miranda experiences on these islands are another aspect that she is forced to process. On a couple of occasions the narrative stops, as the trauma is too much to confront. She cannot write to her mother whilst she experiences these feelings and so we are cut out from her story. Abby Geni demonstrates how intertwined the experiences of grief and trauma are. This book highlighted to me for the first time that grief itself can be a form of trauma.
This book is also about Miranda learning who she is and being forced to grapple with her life choices and sense of self. It is a book about self-discovery. Miranda is rarely called by her real name in this book and this is a fact that she does not mind that much. She has spent her life trying to escape herself and her feelings; on these islands she can escape herself all the more. She photographs the world, but is separated from her life and the world by the barrier of her camera – it is her safety blanket. Whilst trapped on this desolate island, however, she has no choice but to be confronted with herself.
The writing in this book is its crowning glory. It is lush and evocative. The desolate environment sucked me in and I revelled in the descriptions of the animals that live there. I truly saw the danger and beauty of the sharks as they hunted. I was as overwhelmed as Miranda was when she went whale-watching. I felt the danger of the aggressive gulls as mating season arrived. And I was in awe of the landscape and natural world we live in.
The days are growing shorter. The constellations have pivoted, the autumn shapes dipping beneath the horizon, the winter stars shining with greater urgency. The sea seems different too. The islands sit on the edge of the coastal plateau. To the west, the ocean floor plummets into black depths.
If it had not been for the beautiful writing, I do not think I would have liked this book as much as I did. Whilst several dramatic events do happen, the plot itself did not particularly grip me and the other characters on the island are not fleshed out. We get to know Miranda intimately, but we barely scratch the surface of the island’s other inhabitants. I would have liked to have seen their personalities develop and for Miranda to understand them more as time went by. They seemed like people who could have fascinating personalities, but we never got to explore them.
Overall, I did enjoy this book. I adore expressive nature writing and there was an abundance of this available. I would have preferred it if the other characters had been explored though, as that would have given the book some more depth. The book’s strength lay in the passages where the wilderness was described and these were the parts where I had an emotional response. Her writing style would be well-suited to non-fiction nature writing, so I’d be thrilled if she ever decided to turn her pen to that. The Lightkeepers is a wonderful debut novel and I would love to read more of Geni’s work. I have my eye set on her short story collection, The Last Animal, so if you have read that please let me know your thoughts.