I like to experiment. In a restaurant, I’m generally the one ordering weirdest dish which more often than not turns out to be unsavory. And I more often than not turn my attention to what’s in my wife’s plate. So it was no surprise when I was introduced to an app that could be used to borrow audiobooks from local public libraries, I picked the first book from the list – The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni. I didn’t know the author, the book, the theme, even the year when it was published. All I knew was it is a novel. From the name supposedly, may be, possibly about people running a Light House. It could be a period piece about hardships of early Light House maintainers. Or a murder mystery novel about a high profile murder at a Light House and its eventual anticlimactic culmination. Or a sci-fi novel about a stranded Alien trying to contact the motherland or mother-ship from a Light House. Surprisingly I was somehow sure about a Light House. I don’t know why. It could very well have been about people like the Agnihotris, an ancient Brahmin community responsible for maintaining a constant fire in their house. So that others can come to them when they need light and fire. They came to be known as fire-worshipers, or lightkeepers. Makes perfect sense to me now. But the moment I glanced at the title of the book, all I thought of was a Light House. May be it was the cover image of a lone tree with birds and some sort of water body in the background – most probably a sea – that made me think this was a book about a Light House on a seashore. Isn’t this thrilling? Starting a book when you have no idea what the book is about. And you making wild guesses and staying deliberately away from Google which could unceremoniously squash this curiosity in an instant. This is the kind of thrill sports enthusiasts want to achieve when they miss a game and shut-off all contacts with the outside world until they watch the replay on DVR. Or binge’ers who skip team lunches for the fear that someone might ruin the new season of Game of Thrones that released yesterday and which they plan to binge on this coming weekend. Not uncommon at all.
Anyway, I take a bus every day to work and back and decided to make use of those two hours to unravel this mystery of an audiobook. I settled in my seat, put on headphones, pressed play button and closed my eyes. The book is read by Xe Sands whose narration instantly disappointed me. Her voice reminded me of my aunt whispering with my mother on delicate matters. A shrill, soft voice which would trail off towards the end of each sentence. It made me drift off more than once in the beginning and I had to make conscious effort to focus on the words. I even dozed off couple of times and had to go back few minutes in the playback. This was new to me, different from other audiobooks I had listened to, where voice-actors with theatre background or newscasters enunciate each word enough so they would successfully navigate my ear-canals and reach my brain. Here I had to cover my EarPods with my hand and focus on what I was listening. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise since I was listening more carefully and more than that the subject matter called for such a narration.
The story starts with a person, a female, returning from an island where she was presumably living for some time. Her name is Miranda. Her mixed feelings about the island become apparent while she successfully navigates swarm of seagulls before settling into the cabin. On the way back to mainland, she peruses through her notes setting up an ideal prologue to a forthcoming flashback for the readers. We come to know that she is a famous nature photographer who had been living on Farrallon Islands with other biologists for a year. A flashback-within-flashback tells us how her mother died in a freak accident on D.C. streets when she was 14 and how she developed a habit of writing letters to her Mom about what is happening in her life and sending them to “Mom”. The notes she is going through are nothing but bunch of letters which in the absence of any post-office on the island, got stuffed under the bed for the duration of her stay and which are returning with her to the mainland. These diary’esque letters give us readers an insight into her life and her thoughts.
(From left to right – Location with respect to San Francisco, Island, Aerial view of the Southeast Farallon Island, and South East Farallon Island. Source: Wikipedia)
Farallon islands is a small archipelago 30 miles east of San Francisco. Just 30 miles. Yet it is a completely untamed, hostile environment. During different seasons different marine animals migrate to its shores and call it a home. Sharks in summer, followed by Whales, followed by Elephant seals and flocks and flocks of Seagulls and Murre birds before the Sharks come again. The tiny landmass of few square miles distributed among one big island and many small islets mostly contains rocky cliffs, scant vegetation and slippery granite terrain. It was no surprise that early native Indians considered this a Hell where dead souls would go in afterlife. Nature governed it nicely until the end of gold rush era when miners without Gold stumbled on the thousands and thousands of Murre eggs on Farrallon Islands. Soon Eggers were born and they nearly stripped these islands of its wealth. Around the same time a Light House was erected on the island after multiple ships found their doom in the surrounding shallow and rocky sea. And men were hired to man the Light House. These were the early biologists and preservationists. They were not only the Light-house-keepers, but Lightkeepers. Governed by respect for the nature and not by greed. There was a constant struggle between them and the Eggers, until Government intervened and proclaimed Farallon Islands as a Federal Natural Preserve.
Fast forward nearly hundred years and only human relics remaining here are a Light House, A cabin, an abandoned coast guard house and millions of mice whose ancestors came here with early humans and thrived on the land without any natural predators. On arrival Miranda finds herself in the company of six biologists stationed on the island. Galen (pronounced ge-lan) is the head of the gang, living on the islands for ten years and a Shark Expert. He is an all-seeing, all-knowing, benevolent elder. Helping him following the Sharks is Forest, a quiet kind. Then there is Mich, a whale biologist. Mich is a giant of a man with boisterous laughter yet gentle at heart. Recently married young couple Andrew and Lucy are the bird experts. And there is an intern Sharlene. Their activities are governed by a single mantra, Observe but do not Intervene. They document everything with a calm & detached professionalism.
Biology and especially marine biology can definitely push people away with their scientific nomenclatures and jargons. Sometimes a sparrow is a sparrow and not a small bird of Passeridae
family and Chordata Phylum. But that’s where I found one of the many strengths of the author. She succeeds in explaining many esoteric things in a plain and interesting language. Also, having a non-scientist character like Miranda helped as well as prodded her towards using a more colloquial language. With Miranda, we experience the thrill of shark pack, led by three sisters, hunting their prey. We get a place on the deck of Janus (their boat) and watch up close the whale ballet, where a giant whale would soar from the water and turn midair before departing. We peek into the burrows where Murre bird eggs are hatching. We pray with Miranda for the lost Elephant seal pup, yet unable to or prohibited from helping it find its way back. We picture crazy Seagull named kamikaze Pete who has forgotten to eat while attacking everyone in an attempt to protect his territory and is slowly dying. We walk alongside Lucy wearing a hard hat and a mask so as to save ourselves from POH (Pecked on Head) by the Seagulls.
Another subject handled beautifully by the author is Photography. I wonder if she has any firsthand experience in photography. Detachment is one of the common things between a biologist and a nature-photographer. Both of them are governed by the same principle. I remember my dad’s short story where a wedding-photographer rushes into action when the bride is saying her goodbyes to her family, unnerved by or rather unaware of the inherent sadness of the situation. Same is the case with Miranda while observing the animals and even humans. Her hand reaches out to the camera instinctively and all she is thinking about is composition, frame and the lighting. She laments the fact that she doesn’t get to enjoy the activity when it is happening. She contrasts it with other artists like a painter or a sculptor. They have freedom to enjoy the moment, fill it in their hearts and head back to their place of solitude to put it down on a paper or make it happen with clay. Detachment is advised but not always observed. Photographers tinker with the subject they are capturing to highlight an idea they want to propagate. Like journalists they have an ability to play with viewer’s psyche by intelligently using different tools like the lighting, the angle, or the color. Still Miranda knows when to leave back her gear. She knows the ability of photographs to ‘replace’ memories rather than to ‘capture’ them. How many times has it happened to me that all my memories of a particular event are from the pictures at that event? I might have been in a crabby mood at a gathering and would be smiling only for the camera. But after few years, I remember that gathering as a happy event just from the pictures, completely forgetting my state-of-mind at that time. Its inability to penetrate beneath the skin is one of the biggest shortcomings of a photograph. The writer captures it perfectly when she says – “To write is to remember, to photograph is to replace”. I was jolted to my core when I heard this for the first time and it actually made me make this attempt to write down my feelings about this book. In a time of social-media where you document your life with pictures, this is more relevant than ever.
But the book is not about Marine Biology or photography. The book is about human relations. That’s the core where author so tremendously triumphs. Turn away or stop reading if you don’t want spoilers. You can resume from next paragraph. Miranda or “Melisa/rat-girl” as she is called by others in the cabin, is assaulted and raped by Andrew three months into her stay there. Lucy is a doting wife of Andrew and is unaware of the rape. Miranda develops high fever which lasts for many days during which she hallucinates frequently. She finds a friend in Mich, who takes care of her during this time. But she hasn’t told anyone about the rape. Mysteriously just few days later Andrew is found dead in the water. He apparently went on the stroll at night and slipped and fell from one of the cliffs. Now there is no need to tell anyone anything. The island has avenged the injustice in its own way. Miranda recovers as quickly as coming out of a bad dream. In whales and Mich she finds a new friendships. She gets extremely happy when she finds out the secret relationship between Mich and Forest. They have found a place that doesn’t oppose a relationship between two men. The mystery of Andrew’s death intensifies when Sharlene mentions to Miranda that she heard noises, two noises outside on the night when Andrew died. It was most probably the wind playing with her mind but she had been uneasy about it since. Then one fine day Miranda suddenly realizes that she is pregnant. A new turmoil takes over her as she is not sure what to do with the baby or even what to tell others. She herself couldn’t notice the change in her for three-four months until she sees her own picture. She confides her pregnancy in Mich and is surprised to know that he has noticed it for some time now. He is also able to deduce by elimination that Andrew must be father. But he doesn’t know about the rape. He saves her from embarrassment by telling everyone that it is his baby that Miranda is carrying. But as final touch of evil stroke, the Island also takes Mich away from her, when while avoiding the attacking Seagulls he falls from a cliff. Now there is nothing holding her on this island. Since the loss of her mother, for the first time, Miranda feels like grounding. Making a home, raising a baby. With a baby around the corner, she steps on the ferry with hopes for a better future where she would raise the baby as Mich’s son rather than Andrew’s.
But who killed Andrew? Did Sharlene really hear two people that night? What did Forest think about Mich claiming the baby was his? Who was observing whom on that island? Is there someone else on that Island? Are the lightkeepers worthy of their name? This and many other questions finally get answered in the epilogue. And we are left shocked yet satisfied.
So after a week on Farrallon islands with Miranda and other biologists, I finally know what this book is about. If you are intrigued by human relations, photography, a good murder mystery, and whales and sharks, you should also take this journey. I am glad I picked it up. I can’t say what I will do next, may be another book. I will tell you all after I know about it. Till then don’t replace your memories with photographs, write about them.
P.S. If you decide to take one of my ideas from first paragraph and write a book, my agent would love to have a chat with you about royalties. Chao.