Books: From a Low and Quiet Sea

36906103From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
Published March 22, 2018
star-4
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are some books you can read at the right or wrong time in your life and enjoy that much more or less as a result. I’m convinced that there are also books you can read in a correct and incorrect way. Some books are meant to be devoured; to be absorbed over just a day or two of intense reading, after which you come up for air. From a Low and Quiet Sea is one of those books and I foolishly read it in exactly the wrong way.

From a Low and Quiet Sea reads more like a series of short stories than it does a novel. In order, we’re introduced to Farouk, a man who makes the difficult choice to flee Syria with his wife and daughter in hopes of a better, safer life for his family, Lampy, a young bus driver from a rural Irish town who has recently had his heart broken, and John, an older man who has lived his life in the shadow of his beloved brother’s premature death. Although thematically the stories are connected through a feeling of absence, of loss of something, or someone, dear, they seem to have little in common until the stories cleverly converge in an ending that is both unexpected and rewarding.

The problem with multiple perspectives is that one part is often stronger than the others. Such is the case here, where Farouk’s story is by far the most compelling part of From a Low and Quiet Sea. I was hooked from the first page and read voraciously. While John’s perspective, the only one told in first person (to be more specific, in the style of a confession given to a priest) is also interesting, the stakes and tension are so much lower in Lampy’s rural town that it’s difficult to feel as strongly about the story. Ultimately John and Lampy’s stories never quite measured up to the promise of those early chapters.

The biggest reason to read and love From a Low and Quiet Sea though is the prose. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for a well-crafted sentence, and this book offers some of the best examples of craftsmanship I’ve read. There’s a melodic, flowing quality to Ryan’s prose which I imagine would lend itself well to an audiobook, yet there’s also, especially in the Lampy sections, that black comedy that I’ve come to expect and adore from Irish writers. Ryan has the rare gift of always seeming to choose exactly the right word to express a thought or emotion, which makes for a really lovely reading experience.

Reading this short (it clocks in at a slim 181 pgs) book over three or four days, it took me longer to make the connections between the stories and to garner meaning from the text.  Like when I foolishly tried to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo on a heavily scheduled vacation, I wasn’t as absorbed in or affected by the book as I hoped I would be. I’d consider my reading experience to be more of a 3.5 star one, but I’m 90% sure I would have gotten more out of From a Low and Quiet Sea if I had read it in one sitting, so I’ve rounded up to the 4 stars it most likely deserves. Planning to pick this up? Give it the attention it deserves and settle in for an evening. You won’t regret it.

Advertisements

Stage: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre breaks your heart and then puts it back together again. Deftly adapted for the stage by choreographer Cathy Marston and brought to life by a talented company, Jane Eyre is an overwhelming love story with a feminist slant.

Departing from the Charlotte Bronte novel on which it is based, Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre begins on the moors shortly after Jane has escaped from Thornfield. Jane fights off violent attempts by male ensemble members, who represent her inner demons, to cage her spirit, before she is found by St. John Rivers. The ballet then takes us back through Jane’s memories to her abusive childhood experiences in the Red Room and at Lowood before depicting her burgeoning romance with her mysterious and haunted employer, Mr. Rochester.

SETS, COSTUMES, & MUSIC

Perhaps partially because this is a touring production, the minimalist set design uses few props or furnishings, beyond several chairs, to set the scene, but the gothic atmosphere of the novel is effectively captured through low lighting and neutral-toned costumes. Pops of colour occur in the form of Jane’s pupil, Adele’s, girlish pink dress and Bertha’s red ragged gown, which mirrors the fire she will eventually set.

I can’t say that the score, compiled by Philip Feeney, made much of an impression on me one way or another. Although certainly appropriate for the ballet, it’s a score that didn’t stick with me, unlike some of the more memorable ballet scores, like those of Cranko’s Onegin (selections from Tchaikovsky) or Neumeier’s Nijinsky (music by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsokov, and Shostakovich).

CHOREOGRAPHY

Cathy Marston’s striking choreography uses classical ballet language, but with a contemporary edge. Adapting a first person narrative as internal as Jane Eyre into a medium that doesn’t use speech should be a challenge, but Marston makes the transition seem effortless. Arguably one of the greatest accomplishments of Jane Eyre is Jane’s narrative voice as she expresses a feminist desire for agency that still resonates today. Working from source material that offers little in the way of male characters, Marston cleverly uses members of the male ensemble as ‘D-Men’, who represent Jane’s inner demons. The eight D-Men surround Jane in moments of turmoil and she physically fights off their influence, retaining the novel’s early feminist themes.

Jane’s inner struggle to repress her passionate feelings is shown through a repeated symbolic gesture where the ballerina calms herself by pressing a horizontally-held hand down from her heart through her body. I was also struck by a moment with Jane and Rochester where they shake hands with the requisite formality, but the choreography has each dancer duck under the other’s hand and indicate how the handshake has inwardly affected them before they snap back to reality. How I wish Cathy Marston would lend her considerable talents to my beloved National Ballet of Canada!

I’ve seen some criticism that the ballet is quite dark which, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll know is the opposite of a problem for me! I often like my ballet like I like my books – dark and painful – so I loved that about Jane Eyre. Some critics also found the structure confusing. Admittedly if I hadn’t read the synopsis and/or the novel first, I may have been confused by the D-Men, but having done so I thought this technique was quite a clever way of depicting an internal struggle in a medium that doesn’t use words.

PERFORMANCES

In this adaptation, Jane is danced by two different ballerinas. Antoinette Brooks-Daw portrays Young Jane, while Dreda Blow dances Jane as a young woman. Brooks-Daw is immensely sympathetic as the orphaned, maltreated younger heroine. Jane’s childhood is far from idyllic, but Brooks-Daw retains Jane’s characteristic strength of spirit throughout and shows plenty of fire when she retaliates against her cousin John’s [a wonderfully cruel Matthew Koon] physical abuse.

In a subtly affecting performance, Dreda Blow conveys Jane’s strength, intelligence, and the passion she tempers down. She simply breaks your heart along with Jane’s. More than any prior adaptation (yes, even the excellent BBC miniseries starring Toby Stephens) I understood Jane’s attraction to the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. From the moment Javier Torres appeared on stage, sprawling insolently into a chair and preventing Jane from leaving the room with an elegantly outstretched leg, I was captivated. Torres is magnetic, portraying Rochester’s irritability, arrogance, and yet his charisma. The chemistry between Jane and Rochester is palpable from their first meeting and only intensifies through a series of passionate pas-de-deuxs.

The minor characters are no less excellent. Rachel Gillespie is a buoyant, excitable presence as Adele, Pippa Moore is flightier, younger, and perhaps more comic than the housekeeper, Ms. Fairfax, of the novel, but was lovely to watch nonetheless, and Kiara Flavin imprints herself on our hearts as well as on Jane’s as Helen Burns.

It’s easy to understand why Dance Europe referred to Northern Ballet as boasting “the best dance-actors in the world”. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to witness such a talented company performing a largely faithful and clever adaptation of the early feminist source material we hold so dear. Jane Eyre undoubtedly ranks among my favourite storytelling ballets, and should the company decide to revive it, I strongly urge even those who have never seen a ballet before to take a chance on it. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.

Photo of Javier Torres and Dreda Blow by Caroline Holden.

Books: Girl Through Glass

25817032Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
Published January 26, 2016
star-3-half
Girl Through Glass ticks most of the boxes necessary to be a compelling read. Sari Wilson’s debut about a young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet is told through prose that is by turns elegantly wistful and gritty. Juxtaposing the crime-riddled New York City of the late seventies/early eighties with the beauty and artistry of the world of ballet, the author writes with authority about her subject and constructs believably flawed characters. The problem is there’s nothing very original about her story.

As her parents go through a messy divorce, eleven-year-old Mira, an aspiring ballerina, finds escape in the world of dance, which offers her control and a chance to be seen. She catches the eye of forty-seven-year-old ballet enthusiast Maurice Dupont and he becomes her mentor. The talented young malleable ballerina and the inappropriately older creepy mentor – we all know where this is going.

The problem isn’t one of authenticity. More than a century ago there was sexual trade in ballet dancers that included Vaslav Nijinsky, widely regarded as the greatest male dancer of the early twentieth century. More recently, a horrific story about sexual exploitation of female dancers within the real-life New York City Ballet broke just before I sat down to write this review. I don’t doubt the prevalence of harassment in the dance world, and it doesn’t help that many ballet companies have in their repertoire works where women are abused, raped, and/or die, a fact that is increasingly being noted by arts critics.

My issue is that there are so few works of fiction about the world of ballet and many of them seem to contain the same components:

  • The young, naive prodigy ballerina who is chosen to play an important role in a piece
  • Her sexual harassment by someone in a position of power (usually a patron or director)
  • She experiences some form of mania or breakdown
  • This ends up damaging her physically, psychologically, or both.

Must all ballet stories follow the same path?

For all my negativity about the plot, I did genuinely enjoy reading Girl Through Glass, racing through it in a couple of days. The author trained as a dancer so she writes about ballet with authority and authentically depicts the outward glamour of the Russian-infused ballet world of the late seventies and early eighties. Her use of language is evocative; Wilson uses an unromantic, grimly realistic style when writing about NYC, but her prose soars as she writes about dance and the inner ambitions of her characters.

This is very much a coming-of-age story and Mira is an interesting character to follow, a pre-teen talent who is still discovering her identity. The relationships between characters also ring true, from the way Mira, an oft-ignored girl latches onto Maurice, who glimpses her talent and potential, to her complicated interactions with her parents and even the detached way that the character approaches her friendships.

Ballet is a fascinating subject, so why aren’t there more fictional stories being told about the world of dance? Original stories? Girl Through Glass does what it does extremely well, it just doesn’t offer anything fresh or exciting, covering much of the same ground as the Starz miniseries, Flesh & Bone. Ballet aficionados will enjoy Girl Through Glass for its vividly rendered account of the challenging and competitive world of New York City ballet, but I don’t think there’s enough here to capture the attention of the average reader.

 

Monthly Wrap-up: July & August

July and August couldn’t have been more different for me in terms of reading. July was a strong month where I may not have read a great deal but I loved what I read. Every one of the five books I finished (1 a re-read) I gave four stars or more! While I finished an extra book in August, my ratings were all over the map. Hopefully September will be a more consistently strong month of reading.


August

The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin  small 2 half stars + Review
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson  small 3 half stars + Review
Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper  small 4 stars + Review
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni  small 4 stars + Review
Bright We Burn by Kiersten White  small 4 half stars + Review
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg  small 2 half stars + Review

July
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang  small 4 half stars + Review
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty  small 4 stars + RTC
Now I Rise by Kiersten White (re-read)
Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly  small 4 stars
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan  small 4 stars + Review

Book(s) of the Month(s): The Poppy War and Bright We Burn. R.F. Kuang’s brutal fantasy that draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War featured a ruthless anti-heroine and a compelling plot. Kiersten White’s Bright We Burn brought her Conquerors trilogy to a thoroughly satisfying ending that made sense for all of the characters.

Honourable Mentions: Armistice isn’t quite as strong as the first book in the trilogy, Amberlough, but I still absolutely loved it and I cannot wait to see where the story goes next! The Lightkeepers is so beautifully written and such an atmospheric ode to Agatha Christie that I loved it.

Least Favourite: I gave two books the sub-par 2.5 stars rating in August, but it’s The Court Dancer that takes the title. Confessions of the Fox just wasn’t for me, but I appreciated what it was trying to do. The Court Dancer should have been for me, it just wasn’t well-executed by the author.

***

Seen on Stage: Summer is traditionally a slower time for theatre in Toronto, perhaps because so many Canadians choose to take vacation time and/or migrate north every weekend to the cottage, but I was kept busy watching and reviewing 15 shows at the Toronto Fringe Festival for My Entertainment World. The way the timing worked out I was working almost full-time hours at a bustling library branch that had just re-opened to the public, then taking transit to watch a few plays, and spending my spare time writing reviews of what I’d just seen. It was a pretty hectic, but fun, week-and-a-half!

Outside of Fringe I saw just two shows in the last few months, both Soulpepper productions. I didn’t always understand Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel about gender roles, but the performances were outstanding and the direction effective. I was more taken with Bed & Breakfast, a new Canadian play about a gay couple who move from Toronto to a picturesque northern Ontario town to set up a B&B after one of them inherits the family home. Actors Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia (a couple in real life) play not just Brett and Drew, but also the inhabitants of the town, who range from an Irish lesbian to a flaky pregnant coffee shop owner. The second-half is stronger than the first act, but it’s a hilarious, moving, and distinctly Canadian play that I really enjoyed.

FRINGE
I reviewed 15 shows total at the Fringe, of which my favourites were Generally Hospital, a sketch comedy revue of skits set at hospitals performed by a hilarious and refreshingly diverse cast, How to be Fearless (with Roxy Roberts!) an unorthodox one-woman motivational seminar on how to defend yourself and live fearlessly, which was surprisingly poignant, and Robert., a tragicomedy about family, identity, loss, and bagpipes.

***

Coming up in September: Our copies of John Boyne’s latest, A Ladder to the Sky, have arrived from the UK (the North American release is not until November) so Rachel, Steph, and I are planning a buddy read! I’m about half-way through Foundryside, the first book in a new series by Divine Cities trilogy author Robert Jackson Bennett, and I have some literary fiction reads planned, with both Warlight by Michael Ondaatje and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan sitting on my shelf.

Books: The Court Dancer

36327117The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
(translated by Anton Hur)
Published August 7, 2018
star-2-half
I wish that I could recommend my only themed read for Women in Translation Month, but while the idea behind the novel is terrific, the execution just isn’t there. Suffering from pacing issues and a writing style that keeps the reader at arm’s length so we never truly connect with the characters, The Court Dancer fails to live up to its promising premise.

Set during the late Joseon Dynasty of the 1880/90s, when isolationist Korea began to open its doors to the west, a novice French diplomat arrives for an audience. He is enraptured by the beauty and dancing of Yi Jin, an orphaned girl who has grown into a skilled court dancer and favourite of the Queen, and gains permission for her to accompany him to France. In Belle Epoque Paris, Jin lives away from the gilded cage of court, translating literature and attending salons, but she’s overcome with grief and homesickness and returns to Korea in a final tragic homecoming.

This should have been right up my alley. I don’t know much about East Asian history, but books like Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko have sparked an interest to learn more, and the transitional period of the late nineteenth century provides an interesting backdrop for the story.

Unfortunately it’s paced at a crawl. We spend quite literally half of The Court Dancer on Victor, the French diplomat, waiting to receive permission to marry Yi Jin and for her to agree to the match. Yi Jin is reticent and we receive little in the way of emotion from her about anything, but especially her feelings, or lack thereof, for Victor. Indeed, she has little choice in the matter once the Queen decides that Jin’s beauty poses a threat to her relationship with the King and keeps Jin away from court. Victor is enraptured with Jin from first sight for entirely superficial reasons – she speaks French, her beauty reminds him of an ex-lover he’s lost, and she dances well. Neither is truly in love with the other, so it’s difficult to care about them as a couple.

I was far more interested in the complicated dynamics between Yi Jin and the Queen, who acts as both mother and rival to Jin. I also think that Kyung-Sook Shin could have solved both some of the pacing issues and characterization problems I had with her novel by choosing to begin The Court Dancer with scenes of Yi Jin and the Queen on the run instead of using these scenes only in brief flashbacks later on.

My main frustration with The Court Dancer is the writing style. Rarely have I been kept at such a distance by an author! I never connected with Kyung-Sook Shin’s characters, and as a result I found the climactic tragedy unaffecting. The Court Dancer manages to be both lethargic and melodramatic, with high drama that happens to characters we care little for. As a result, what should be a crushing, soul destroying tragedy is instead merely bittersweet and forgettable. Kyung-Sook Shin squanders the story’s potential by keeping the reader at a distance and employing a tell, don’t show, style of writing that keeps us from connecting with any of the characters on the page.

Despite this negativity, there are some things worth praising about the novel. There’s some poignant commentary on imperialism, particularly in Yi Jin’s dismay at art and artifacts being taken from the lands where they were created to be displayed without context in a French museum or library. ‘What right do the French have to loot these treasures merely to collect them?’ she wonders, and when Victor takes her to see a painting by Delacroix (a French artist) she comments that finally a piece of art is where it’s meant to be.

The Court Dancer also deals with themes of identity and being ‘other’. Jin is caught between two worlds but belongs to neither. In Paris she is a novelty as the only Korean woman, saying to Victor, “People here look at me like the things you have collected.” She becomes homesick for Korea, but upon her return finds that she no longer belongs.

I can certainly see The Court Dancer being tweaked and adapted into other mediums with success – I especially think it would make a stunning ballet – but the novel just didn’t work for me. I know Kyung-Sook Shin is a popular South Korean author and I’ve heard great things about her bestseller Please Look After Mom, but considering my great book-blogging friend Rachel made similar critiques of the author’s work in her review of another Kyung-Sook Shin novel, I’ll Be Right There, it will be some time before I consider reading another book by this author.

 

Books: The Poppy War

35068705The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Published May 1, 2018
star-4-half
Fantasy is my favourite genre of fiction, so I was thrilled when I saw this much anticipated debut reviewed so positively within the book blogging community! The Poppy War met my sky-high expectations, delivering a ruthless anti-heroine, a grim, well-paced plot, and compelling world building that fuses Chinese history with fantastical elements.

The plot follows war orphan Fang Runin “Rin”, who escapes an arranged marriage by acing the Keju, an empire-wide entrance exam, and testing into Sinegard, Nikan’s most prestigious military academy. Upon arriving at Sinegard, though, she finds that her hard work has just begun, as she’s targeted by her classmates for her dark skin and poverty. More pressingly, Nikan’s old enemy, the Federation of Mugen, lurks across the narrow sea about to bring an end to the peace that Rin and her classmates have enjoyed. When the Third Poppy War begins, Rin finds that her unpredictable gift for shamanism, the ability to call the gods, may be the only thing that can save her people from meeting a brutal fate at the hands of the Federation.

Tonally the book is composed of two somewhat dissonant parts. The first comprises Rin’s studies for the Keju and her enrollment at Sinegard, while the second focuses on the war with Mugen. I’ve heard the Sinegard chapters compared to Harry Potter, which – I get, but I thought this part had more in common with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. Both Rin and Kvothe learn from a Master that other students and faculty consider more than a little loopy, they’re both driven rebels who make desperate choices in order to remain at school, and both have a wealthy student rival. The main difference lies in the characters themselves.

Kvothe is a full on “Gary Stu”, while Rin’s success, both in acing the Keju and in her studies, is largely due to her work ethic and ruthlessness. I would have found this combination of qualities interesting in any character, but I especially loved seeing a female protagonist who is so cunning and ambitious! Dark heroines who are irrevocably changed by what they’ve seen and endured are definitely up my alley (see Seth Dickinson’s vengeful Baru Cormorant or Kiersten White’s savage Lada Dracul for more complicated badass heroines) and Rin is a terrific example. Self-assured and driven, she uses pain as a motivator to achieve her goals and finds her own creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Although sometimes her decisions are not ones that I would have made, I always understood why she chose what she did.

The second part of the book is darker. A Lot Darker. Inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, the author draws from history, and in particular the Nanking Massacre, to construct an unflinchingly brutal account of atrocities. I knew The Poppy War would be intense, but even after warnings about its brutality, I didn’t expect the book to plunge to quite those depths! It’s definitely hard to stomach at times, but the violence is not gratuitous, it serves the narrative.

I’m not always a fan of military strategy and so-called ‘war books’, but The Poppy War expertly balances its military aspects with compelling character development, politicking (which I enjoy in fantasy fiction), and a warning about the cost of power. I also loved the development of Rin’s relationship with her schoolyard rival and the maturity of their mutual decision to drop all grudges when there are more important things at stake.

My few criticisms of the book come down to the characters. As much as I adore Rin, I wish there were more female characters in this world! Rin is one of only a few women at Sinegard, and remains the only major female character throughout the series. Besides a throwaway remark early on about how few girls make it through their first year (the context suggesting that this is due to systemic discrimination against women based on the belief that they cannot compete due to their bodies) there’s limited information on why there are so few women in the ranks.

My biggest issue though is the under-development of secondary characters in parts II and III. Altan Trengsin gets a wonderful character arc, but besides their leader, the Cike (Rin’s band of fellow oddballs and shamans) are pretty dull and difficult to tell apart. The twins have the potential to be interesting characters, and I hope Kuang expands on them in the next volume of this planned trilogy, but the rest of the Cike left me cold.

Despite these (minor) criticisms, I adored The Poppy War. It’s a stunning debut and I can’t wait to see where the story goes next!

 

Books: Our Homesick Songs

36373586Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper
Published August 14, 2018
star-4
“All songs are homesick songs.”
“Even the happy ones?”
“Especially the happy ones.”

Set during the 1992 collapse of the Newfoundland cod industry, Our Homesick Songs is a lyrical lament to a disappearing way of life.

As their nets begin to come up empty, residents of Big Running leave the island and head west, obtaining work in the Alberta oilpatch. Martha and Aidan Connor are among the few who remain, but when they are given six months to relocate before the government cuts off services, the Connors too look west. Martha and Aidan spend alternate months in Newfoundland and in Alberta – one at home with the children, while the other puts food on the table. Ten-year-old Finn and his sister Cora gradually find themselves living in a ghost town, but while Cora wants nothing more than to leave and attend a proper school, Finn dreams of finding fish and reuniting his family.

Magic realism is very hit-or-miss for me, but I largely found that the fantastical elements were subtle enough that they enhanced the story without overtaking it. In fact, one of the most unrealistic parts of the story for me was trying to wrap my head around a Murphy family growing up in 1960s Newfoundland who would name their daughters Minnie and Meredith and not Margaret and Maureen!

There’s an underlying melancholy to Our Homesick Songs. Throughout the novel Cora raids the abandoned library boat collection of 1960s travel guides and turns each deserted house into a different country for Finn. While there’s a sense of wonder at what she’s able to construct, the transformations are bittersweet. Cora is only able to accomplish her feats of creativity because more and more houses are being abandoned, and she has no one her own age to play with.

Truthfully I would have liked a more in-depth look at Newfoundland culture and traditions than Our Homesick Songs offers, but the way in which Hooper seamlessly works folklore and music into her story is enchanting. I also loved the interwoven tale that Finn never grows tired of, his parents’ love story, which is rendered with a good deal of magic and charm.

I felt for the Connor family throughout: For resourceful Cora, who just wants to be normal and have friends and attend school; for Martha and Aidan who navigate a long-distance marriage for months in order to both spend time with their children and earn a wage; and for Finn, who works so hard against the impending loss of his home. I suspect it’s the town and the way of life we’re meant to connect with as much as the characters though. Mission accomplished! I grew to love Big Running, which comes across as a land that time forgot. When Finn rowed his small boat through chunks of ice on the water to reach his accordion teacher’s house I was helplessly charmed.

The heart of this delightful novel though is music and its power to draw people together and to remind us of home. People sometimes leave, but this doesn’t mean that they forget their roots or their family and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re gone forever. Alive with musicality and innovation, Our Homesick Songs is sweetly sad and utterly charming.

Books: The Lightkeepers

25786411The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Published January 12, 2016
star-4
Abby Geni’s debut is both a haunting examination of the human psyche and a lyrical ode to the natural world. Although it features many mystery conventions – there’s the isolated environment, a limited set of suspects, many of whom are keeping secrets, and a death that may or may not be accidental – Geni’s eloquent prose and atmospheric setting elevate this novel, creating a vividly rendered, engrossing read.

Nature photographer Miranda obtains a one-year residency capturing the landscape and wildlife of a remote archipelago thirty miles off the coast of California. Her only companions are the six, somewhat eccentric, biologists who reside on the island studying the local whale, shark, bird, and seal populations. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the island’s inhabitants. A few days later, her assailant is found dead. As Miranda grapples with what has happened, her connection to the beautiful, but dangerous, Farallon Islands deepens.

Told through letters Miranda writes to her long-dead mother, the story is split into four parts that follow the distinct seasons of the island, each named for the indigenous animal that dominates that season (Shark, Whale, Seal, and Bird). Arguably the number one reason to read The Lightkeepers is the prose. Geni’s writing is so beautifully mutable that it shifts from being to-the-point in Miranda’s descriptions of daily routines, and often her interactions with the biologists, to expressive and poignant as she describes the natural beauty of the islands.

I love books where the setting is rendered in such a way that it becomes another character in the novel. The Lightkeepers accomplishes this beautifully. Geni’s depiction of the Farallon Islands captures their isolation, beauty, and ruggedness, while never forgetting the danger they pose to both their human and animal residents. Admittedly I haven’t read widely on the natural world, but I think it would be difficult to find a more thorough and realistic portrayal in fiction that balances the beauty and violence of nature.

Although I can’t say that the characters left a lasting impression on me, they’re given enough depth here to move the story along and it’s difficult to dive deeper into their motivations, pasts, and personalities without derailing the mystery entirely. Miranda herself is intriguing because even though The Lightkeepers is told through her letters, she’s an unreliable narrator. She admits to adopting new character traits with each assignment she undertakes, so how much of the Miranda we see on the islands is the real Miranda?

It may be because And Then There Were None is still firmly fixed in my memory as one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read, but I felt Agatha Christie’s influence on The Lightkeepers keenly. From the red herrings designed to throw us off the scent to the ominous menace of the setting there’s a lot to like about this intelligent and patient mystery. Themes of memory and storytelling resonate. How we choose how to tell a story or to frame a photograph determines how an event is viewed. Similarly, we can twist a narrative, making it fit our motives through what we include and leave out.

I had my issues with some of the events that unfold in the text and I found the literary aspects of the book more compelling than the mystery ones, but The Lightkeepers is beautifully-written, atmospheric, and explores some of my favourite themes (notably storytelling and memory). It’s well worth picking up.