One of the best ways of traveling across America is via the imagination of others.
Using eight books in my TBR pile, I'm journeying from the Farallon Islands off the coast of California to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginian via Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky, writing reviews as I go.
"The Lightkeepers" is the first book on my journey across Fictional America. It's set in the Farallon Islands, about thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco.
Mostly made of jagged rock jutting out of the sea, the islands and the waters that crash about them, are occupied mostly by migratory wildlife, there to breed, feed and move on.
The Farallon Islands are a Wildlife Refuge, off-limits to people except for a small team of scientists who observe and record the lives, deaths and births of creatures on the islands.
Abbi Geni uses this setting to tell the story that is as stark, unforgiving and alien as the Farallon Islands themselves.
At the heart of the story is Miranda, a nature photographer, who has convinced the powers that be to let her spend a year on the island, living amongst the wildlife obsessed biologists, capturing the spirit of the island and its animal population on film.
Yes, I did say her name was Miranda, although almost no-one on the island calls her that, and yes, of course you're supposed to be reminded of "The Tempest" and that "brave new world that has such people in it" and spend time slowly working out who is Prospero and who is Caliban. It's that kind of book for that kind of reader.
I'm not going to give details of the story here, as this is a book where the process of revelation and reconsideration is central the to the enjoyment that it brings, so I will focus on the writing and the structure and the impact that the book had on me.
The first thing to say was that, even when I was least pleased with the book, I found it mesmerising, partly because narrative contains many compelling images that filled my imagination instantly and totally in the way that a good photograph will and partly because I couldn't resist twisting these images in my mind, as if they were a Rubric's Cube that, with persistent manipulation, would yield a coherent pattern.
The struggle for pattern and meaning is central to the structure of "The Lightkeepers". Miranda is perhaps the most unreliable narrator I have ever encountered. She reveals her story in fragments, in the form of letters that she writes compulsively to her dead mother but never posts.
Over time I started to realise that Miranda sees clearly only when she is looking through the lens of her camera and even then it took me a while to realise that the sometimes brutal scenes of strut, rut, violent struggle and pointless death that she documents in the wildlife around her are, in part, attempt to tell herself her own story. Miranda cannot easily confront what has happened to her and what her actions say about her true nature, so she frames her world with with photographs and paragraphs, simultaneously displaying and obscuring the truths that only her sub-conscious mind grasps.
Miranda is as lost and in as much distress as any of the creatures whose struggles to survive and thrive the biologists record but never interfere with. The curious, detached passion of the biologists, the habit of mind that allows them to observe without ever interfering, creates an atmosphere that leaves Miranda more isolated than if she where completely alone on the island.
The unconventional narrative form of "The Lightkeepers" and its emotionally turbulent content, challenges the reader to focus and find meaning; to allow ourselves to see what is there to be seen and not to look away or to deny what has happened and what it means just because it is unpleasant. We are asked to become observers like, the biologists, noting the details and building a picture of the true natures of those we observe.We are also invited to question that passive stance and to take sides and pass judgment.The offer to observe is subtle and skilful. The offer to judge, which happens towards the end of the book, seemed clumsy and contrived by comparison. I found the attempt to divide the world into Lightkeepers, who uphold civilisation, and eggers, who a driven by greed, disappointingly simple.
The end of the book disappointed me, not by its content but by the way it was told The ending felt grafted on. The point of view shifted to another character, the Prospero of the novel, who acted as a kind of Chorus, knitting the loose threads together in a tight, neat pattern and spitting out the moral of the tale. Except, of course, Prospero is also an unreliable narrator so one is left with room to doubt.
Xe Sands does an outstanding job of narration. Click on the link below to hear a sample.