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September 17, 2013 / schulerbooks

Lighthouse Island, by Paulette Jiles


In the future, there will be no past. No one knows what year it is, or what has caused the world to dry up and crack apart as it has. They only know that water is rationed out of the tap, and that hoarding is a crime — one that can get you arrested on mere suspicion.

In the future, there will be no present. No one knows where they are, exactly, as the states and cities are gone. There are only Gerrymanders filled with massive city-slums, all being demolished one building at a time to conserve water pressure, resources, and effort.

In the future, there will be no future. The world has broken, and human society has shattered along with it. As premature demolitions eat the Gerrymanders, and stupid people arrest those who are a little smarter than them, talk of a final rain sounds less like a punishment and more of a relief.

Surely this world must be destroyed, but are there not a few, remarkable souls who deserve to survive?

Nadia could be such a one. When she was young, and her eyesight failed her, the orphan learned to love the sound of Big Radio. The kindly droning of male and female announcers, reading classics into the ether, kept her sane while everyone else was going mad in front of the television. And, even when an experimental drug gave her back her vision, she preferred to listen or read, claiming that too much TV could drive her blind, again.

If only the others had followed her example.

Smarter than her neighbors and betters, and able to talk herself out of almost anything, Nadia can’t help but want something different for herself — something better. But it’s tough enough to merely survive: buildings explode without warning, food and supplies are evaporating as quickly as the water, and roving buses are arresting people off the street for anything they can think of.

Taking them to jail, perhaps. Or maybe something worse.

So when a small indiscretion threatens fatal consequences, Nadia takes it on the lam — escaping into the decaying world outside her office, and trusting in her luck and wits to get her to her own, personal promised land.

For Lighthouse Island beckons, somewhere out there: a far-off paradise promised by a thousand half-heard commercials. There she can live free at last, under a roaring, open sky, in a green and well-hydrated land, teeming with animals she’s only ever read about. Maybe her parents will meet her there, and maybe they won’t. But she won’t know unless she makes the trip.

And what a trip it is; Jiles’ prose is understated, yet magnificent. The descriptions of a society caught in the throes of decay are luscious, and yet the dialogue is often sparse, almost reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. This combination gives Lighthouse Island the quality of a bizarre and claustrophobic dream, or perhaps a fairy tale.

If so, Nadia is a nearly-perfect heroine for such a near-mythical undertaking. An orphan with ideas over her head, a nose for well-meaning trouble, and a tongue as quick as her mind, half the fun of the book is watching her get away with almost anything — until she doesn’t, anymore.

Sadly, the dream doesn’t have an ending as compelling as the majority of the novel. Nadia’s nightmarish journey delicately teeters between oddly-humorous menace and deliquescent splendor for most of the narrative, but after a certain point the journey takes a few ill-considered steps before getting back up again. The ending is still worthy of the brilliance that proceeded it, but it does seem something of a hollow victory after that serious, last-minute stumble.

Having said that, Lighthouse Island is an amazing work, worthy of all the attention Jiles’ work has garnered thus far. Given the fact that everyone and their uncle is being first to be third, fourth, or fifth in “reinventing” the dystopian novel — especially in the Young Adult section — it’s something of a blessed relief to read a work that actually lives up to its promises.

Lighthouse Island is due out in October, and is available for pre-order at all Schuler Books and Music locations

– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood


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