Newspaper article International New York Times

Sharks and Gulls and Menacing Suspense

Newspaper article International New York Times

Sharks and Gulls and Menacing Suspense

Article excerpt

This novel's protagonist, a photographer, spends a year on an island where nature has turned hostile.

The Lightkeepers. By Abby Geni. 361 pages. Counterpoint. $25.

Anyone who has been traumatized by Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" -- a high percentage of its viewers, I'd guess -- may hesitate to read beyond the early pages of Abby Geni's first novel, "The Lightkeepers."

The heroine, a photographer named Miranda, is leaving the island where she has spent the previous year, where the sea gulls now seem to be trying to make sure that no one gets out alive. "A gull slams against Miranda's temple, knocking her off balance. ... Wings thunder around her shoulders." But readers who persevere beyond this unnerving beginning will find themselves carried along by a sturdy, rather old-fashioned thriller ramped up by some modern, ecologically themed plot twists.

The islands on which nature has turned increasingly hostile are the Farallons, off the coast of California, an archipelago so inhospitable ships can't land on its shore. The only way to reach it is by being airlifted inside a net attached to a crane: a contraption resembling the apparatus that transported King Kong from his jungle home to "civilization." Populated by a half-dozen biologists studying its flora and fauna, Southeast Farallon is a hellhole. The weather is appalling. The surrounding ocean is the scene of more shark attacks each year than occur on the rest of the planet combined, a slightly puzzling statistic, given the island's small human population. The granite bedrock is crumbling, and the stream is a toxic "filthy yellow trickle." As if that weren't enough, "Southeast Farallon is the most rodent-dense place in the world." Miranda endures her first serious misadventure when the ground gives way beneath her and, having fallen, she is swarmed by hordes of small, unpleasant mice.

Miranda turns out to be something of a graphomaniac, and the narrative is advanced by the long, detailed letters she writes (and never mails) to her mother, who died when she was 14. The plot is structured like that of a horror film, moving from one alarming event to another, and in between, maintaining a tension around the question of how much worse the situation will get.

Despite her early mishap, Miranda is enchanted by her "exquisite" new home, if not by her housemates, with whom she has "the dynamic of a family, minus any semblance of warmth." A young researcher named Andrew seems menacing and shady. A few of Andrew's colleagues have unsettling, otherworldly auras. Galen and Forest, the "shark specialists," remind Miranda of an "elderly god of the sea" and a "coldblooded naiad." And Andrew's lover, Lucy, can't resist the compulsion to go diving in a wet suit even though the waters are home to three vicious female white sharks, which the scientists call "the Sisters" after the witches in "Macbeth. …

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