The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Published January 12, 2016
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.