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Book Review: ‘The Lightkeepers: A Novel’ by Abby Geni

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Abby Geni is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of The Iowa Fellowship. Her first book was an award-winning collection of short stories, The Last Animal. She lives and teaches fiction writing in Chicago. The NY Times called her first novel “an old-fashioned thriller.” The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press, 2016) received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers 2016 selection.

Excerpt: On a lazy afternoon, I had stumbled onto a snapshot—and that was all it took. White spray breaking on the cliffs. Islets of bare stone, like the skeleton of some massive sea creature, long extinct. It might have been a photograph of loneliness. The Islands of the Dead—they had taken my breath away.
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
The Lightkeepers is Abby Geni’s first full-length novel and the difficulty of confining it to a single genre is a big part of its success. There is violence, both natural and man-made, mystery, epistolary devices, outdoor adventure and psychological suspense. The novel deals with life and death, loss, natural phenomena and the impact of human relationships.

Thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco sit the Farallon Islands. Imposing and isolated, sharks, seals, birds, and other varied life forms make pilgrimages to the archipelago seasonally to give birth, to hunt, to live, and to die. The main island is also home to a plague of rodents and a handful of researchers.

Nature photographer Miranda finagles her way onto the island wildlife sanctuary and situates herself in a rickety cabin with the small group of scientists. Each human comes with their own personal baggage and quirks that poke and prod at each other in their confined quarters. They are island castaways of their own volition, each with their own reason for shunning society.

The scientists have a strict rule about interfering in the animal life they’re charged with studying and recording. Throughout the seasons of her stay, Miranda reports the happenings of man and beast on the island in the form of letters written to her mother. Whether or not our protagonist’s accounting of events is reliable comes into question throughout her story.

There is a sexual assault and then one of the biologists is found dead, floating at the base of a cliff, and the tension on the island escalates. Spotty communication with the outside world—a desirable attribute at the outset—now becomes a danger adding to the deadly effects of the unforgiving landscape. Whether human impulse or biological tendencies prove more antagonistic is a question the reader must puzzle out along with the island’s inhabitants.

The Lightkeepers is a page-turner but not in the potboiler sense of the word. Readers will find themselves drawn deeper to examine Geni’s striking sentences and evocative images. She raises questions about the authenticity of memory recollection, the vulnerability of women, and the survival of loss. Her commentary on the human condition echoes throughout the narrative.

When one of the scientists tends to Miranda during an illness, she observes: “Somebody had taught him the kind of benevolent unselfishness that most women are schooled, in childhood to offer unquestioningly—and few men ever attain.”

Geni’s novel is a beautiful and startling introduction to a harsh and fascinating landscape. Many reviewers have noted comparisons to Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, among others. There’s also a certain Lord of the Flies quality in the commentary about society and the human instinct for survival. Readers will find themselves racing forward to see who makes it off the island. When the trappings of civilization are stripped away, humans are animals after all.

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About Suzanne Brazil

Suzanne M. Brazil is a freelance writer and editor living in a recently empty nest in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work has been featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Writer's Digest, The Chicago Daily Herald and many other publications. She is a frequent blog contributor and is working on her first novel.