I stumbled across The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni on a recommended reading list, where reviewers had described it as a locked-room mystery a la Agatha Christie. You have to understand: I loved And Then There Were None so much that a few friends and I tried making an amateur film version of the book. So I couldn’t resist ordering this new title and reading it as soon as it arrived—and I have to say that I’m so glad I did.
The premise seems simple at first. Miranda, a nature photographer, travels on assignment to the remote Farallon Islands off the coast of California, where she then lives with six biologists studying the wildlife there. But slowly the plot thickens: Miranda writes letters to her deceased mother; one of the scientists is found floating in the water, dead; two of the cabin’s occupants sneak off together in the middle of the night.
The novel takes its time unraveling the secrets of the island and the biologists struggling to survive on its harsh terrain, but that just lends to the story’s beauty. It helps that Geni’s prose is superb. She relies on stark sentences, a rhythm that is constantly moving yet incredibly detailed, and a voice that is at once unbearably close and utterly detached. In writing The Lightkeepers, the author seems to have take the same approach that her biologists encourage when it comes to the flora and fauna they encounter on the island: observe, but do not interfere. The characters adopt a life of their own, and to the reader each becomes incredibly real—and potentially dangerous.
Peppered throughout the novel are short musings by the protagonist on universal themes like human nature and its limits, memory and its reliability, and photography and its ability to capture things that the mind might not want to see. In one instance, Miranda thinks:
“Photography is immediate. It does not offer the luxury of time. Faced with blood, death, or transformation, a photographer has no choice but to reach for the camera. An artist first, a human being afterward. Photography is a neutral record of all events, a chronicle of things both sublime and terrible. By necessity, this work is made without emotion, without connection, without love.”
But despite thoroughly sinking into and enjoying this novel, I did have a few qualms with it. The prologue takes the reader into the future and (I think) gives away too much of the story’s ending. Plus, I ultimately found the plot too predictable—I guessed the outcome halfway through—though I savored the journey to the solution regardless.
Overall, I highly recommend adding this to your bookshelves. It’s both a suspenseful mystery and a poignant work of fiction, offering insight into our own fight-or-flight responses to danger and deception, our own primal core.