The Lightkeepers: A Novel

The Lightkeepers

This wow of a novel traces the year Miranda nee Melissa nee Mousegirl spent on one of the Farallon Islands, thirty miles from San Francisco, taking photographs of the wildlife and living with a band of equally wild biologists.

Miranda received a grant to take pictures on the Farallons and she hides behind her camera. It allows her to observe the world, but always keep it at a safe distance. If you like photography, you will love reading how Geni describes this art, and what a photographer thinks in the moment of shooting.

Then there are the manic, neurotic, preoccupied, risk-crazy biologists. There’s Lucy, bird expert, particularly of murres, and Forest and Galen, white shark experts. Also, Mick, scholar of cetaceans and pinnipeds. Also, sharing the too small cabin is Andrew, Lucy’s boyfriend, and Charlene, the red-haired intern who helps everyone in their research.

The conceit of the book is that each chapter is a letter addressed to Miranda’s dead mother, but luckily not in epistolary form. Between chapters about the dangerous island—and yes this island is full of hazards, both geologic and animal, are ones describing Miranda’s D.C. childhood where she lost her mother at age ten. “When you’ve lost someone,” Galen tells her, “that is the story of your life.”  Galen understands this viscerally because his wife’s death is what sent him to the island and he why never plans to leave.

“Don’t interfere with the creatures,” the biologists warned Miranda sharply upon arriving.  You are not here to lend a hand to those wounded or dying.  Our role is to record and document, not alter behavior. Later, Miranda, must restrain herself from helping a baby elephant seal that was heading into the forest rather than nudging it toward the sea, toward life instead of certain death.

Bad things happen on this island. Many bad things: a rape, attacks by fierce birds (the biologists must wear hardhats in bird season), mysterious falls, failed love affairs. But art happens too, and science, creativity in great draughts like breathing the sea-blessed air. 

At one point Miranda reads that death by drowning is not a bad way to expire. It’s been called ethereal, an ecstatic way to go, with many similarities to dreaming. 

This book is full of life and learning.  Fascinating facts about the myriad creatures and the history of the island wash over you like sea spray. When you reach the end, you will gaze out a window and be surprised to discover only land: hard, ordinary, earth, so immersed were you in this island by the sea.

For another take on a remote island and its inhabitants, try The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, about lighthouse keepers on an island between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.