Book of the Week: Lighthouse Island – Paulette Jiles

This is a great read from a great novelist and one of my very favorite books of the fall so I’m going to run long on this one.

Jiles is well-known for her meticulous researched and rousing historical novels of which America’s librarian, Nancy Pearl, said, “Despite their differences of plot, settings and genre, what I love about each one of these books is the same: the voice of the narrator. These narrators are so compelling, so engaging, so real that I resented each moment I wasn’t reading them. I hope you enjoy their company as much as I did.

And that’s the way I felt about her newest—a dystopian literary quest story that takes place in an unnervingly plausible near-future America. For those of you who don’t often think of “literary” and “dystopia” rest comfortably in the same sentence, I would say this works well for readers from Karen Walker Thompson’s Age of Miracles to Margret Atwood’s stunning MaddAddam.

What she has in common with Thompson and Atwood is a vivid, detailed, fully realized future that reads more like a historical novel than one of the popular commercial dystopias. Page after page, I kept thinking, “Oh, so that’s how the world turns out.” And this dark but hopeful story has something in common with Cormac McCarthy in its beautiful, hypnotic language.

And the language brings it a kind of magic–the magic of the human spirit, fueled by stories–and a vision that a handful of individuals have for themselves amidst a crumbling totalitarian world of disinformation, brutality and incoherence. Many times I thought of 1984 and how logical some of Jiles’ imagined outcomes for us might be in a world of diminished resources. How gratifying that painting a picture of the ruined world isn’t the whole point of the book.

Instead, this is an adventure story about a girl on a quest. And young Nadia’s plucky, shrewd optimism informs the tone of the whole book. This line about the weather captures that: “Weather was a kind of faerie, a land of mystery and peril that nobody could control or even understand.”

Editor Jen Brehl says that this book is not unlike the author’s breakout first novel, Enemy Women—and that feels spot on. Jen writes that both are stories of “a determined young woman who sets out on a seemingly impossible journey to a faraway place and, along the way meets, then loses, then somehow finds again, the love of her life.”

Nadia falls in love with books as a child when her eyes are damaged and she can’t watch the “bread and circuses” fed to the masses through state-owned TV. Books have fallen into disuse and the only connection the people have to their past and their literary culture is something called “Big Radio”, a mysterious broadcast that reads classic literature night and day through the seasons. (BTW: I thought Jiles’ vision of the world regressing back to an almost completely oral culture was haunting.) Through all the privation and stupidity and adversity, Big Radio is in the background, an echo of a grander human past and a beacon to the future of those who choose to listen. In taking on the telling of this adventure, Jiles gives us a story about stories complete with resonances from fairy tales, classic adventures, and classic writers from Orwell all the way back to Homer.

Bookseller support made this one an October Indie Next pick and I include a couple endorsements below along with an excerpt from PW’s review. If you want to read a great writer at the top of her game, try this one.

A century and a half into a worldwide drought finds Earth to be a bleak, dry, decaying urban landscape, precarious for everyone but especially for Parentless Dependent Children like Nadia Stepan. Nadia is a loner, a lover of books in a television addicted world, and dreams of escaping to Lighthouse Island, an improbable haven of trees, rain and wilderness, somewhere to the Northwest. This dystopian novel is beautifully written and almost dreamlike in its setting. Paulette Giles’ scenes of Nadia navigating the crumbling cityscape and her surreal interactions with the many desperate characters are vivid, shocking and often darkly funny, and all the while lit by Nadia’s energy, guile and hope. Nadia is her own lighthouse, and she finds a keeper in all of its definitions in James Orotov, mapmaker, demolitions expert and fellow dreamer and traveler.”
–Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, CO

“I’ve been trying to figure out how to best present my thoughts on this book: if I say, ‘simply and beautifully crafted…’ it doesn’t communicate the elegiac feel given to the horrors of this probable future by such economical prose; nor does it convey the humanity given to a frightening possibility!  The author’s skill carves out moments of beauty in this sorrow, whether it’s a child’s naive mythos or a blasted landscape devoid of both hope and sustenance. If she’s this good in her previous works, I must read them all.”
–Karen Tallant, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

“Jiles’s latest is a lyrical take on dystopian fiction set in an arid, borderless future in which a surfeit population has caused the totalitarian government’s Agencies to resort to drastic survival measures. ‘People disappeared but everybody pretended not to notice and stayed neutral and colorless like fabric lampshades.’ Nadia Stepan, deserted by her family when she was four, leads a lonely existence centered on her fantasies about living on Lighthouse Island, a magical place advertised on TV… The dangerous plot James hatches is like that of one of Nadia’s beloved classic novels. The real test, however, consists of living without the restrictions that have defined their existences up until now. Jiles’s prose is a striking match for the barren landscape of this moody adventure tale.”
Publishers Weekly

Lighthouse Island (9780062232502) by Paulette Jiles. $26.99 hardcover. 10/8/13 on sale.

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