I can measure how well I like a book by how hard I have to push myself to take it up again after putting it down. I finish a chapter or two, do something else, see the book on the table, and check its literary magnetism. Is it beckoning me to open it again right now? The first third of Paulette Jiles’ new novel, Lighthouse Island, had a weak pull. But I stuck with it, partly because I promised the publisher that I’d post a review on my blog in exchange for a copy. I might have abandoned it otherwise. The book gets better as it rolls forward, and the last third is worth the early slog.
Lighthouse Island tells the story of Nadia Stepan, who is discarded by her parents at the age of four in a hot, arid, dusty world of the future that must resemble the Texas landscape of the author’s San Antonio home. Instead of a desert, however, Nadia’s world is a bleak urban dystopia, an ugly ecumenopolis governed by massive, competing bureaucracies that fire real bullets at each other. The waifish Nadia is a survivor, adapting to challenges with a sociopathic cleverness. Needing a purpose to her life, she decides to walk to a resort called “Lighthouse Island,” located in a Pacific Northwest populated by savage hippies. Along the way, she meets the man of her dreams, who demonstrates that even dystopias can offer up miracles.
Nadia eventually finds her fantasy island, though the reality is far different, and in some ways, better than she imagined. Jiles spent time at a lighthouse off the coast of British Columbia, and she captures the moodiness of the skies as storm after storm races in from the North Pacific. But I felt as if I was hiking up one of the rocky cliffs on the mainland, taking switchback after switchback, particularly as I struggled with the author’s decision not to use quotation marks to set off dialog, a la Cormac McCarthy. It’s frustrating to go back over text to figure out who said what, and whether the dialog is internal or external. Text that makes readers work too hard is a failure.
The publisher describes Lighthouse Island as “atmospheric,” referring to Jiles’ poetic, even lyrical descriptions of, in some cases, the actual atmosphere. The dry air of the early chapters gives way to deluges in latter chapters, reminding me of the weather extremes scientists predict as climate change tightens its grip on the planet. One passage hints at Jiles’ view of the importance of place, and a potential mass disorientation in a post-warming world. “Nobody knew where anything was and didn’t usually even know where they were,” she writes, “as if the entire world was a sitcom set of generic nowhereness.” Having evolved in stable climate, how will we cope with a world unfamiliar? Jiles’ suggests we’ll simply look for something that we imagine is better, and make the best of what we find.