Title: Lighthouse Island
Author: Paulette Jiles
No. of Pages: 400
Genre: Science Fiction
Origins: William Morrow
Release Date: 8 October 2013
Bottom Line: Creative premise but ultimately disappointing
“In the coming centuries the world’s population has exploded. The earth is crowded with cities, animals are nearly all extinct, and drought is so widespread that water is rationed. There are no maps, no borders, no numbered years, and no freedom, except for an elite few.
It is a harsh world for an orphan like Nadia Stepan. Growing up, she dreams of a green vacation spot called Lighthouse Island, in a place called the Pacific Northwest.
When an opportunity for escape arises, Nadia embarks on a dangerous and sometimes comic adventure. Along the way she meets a man who changes the course of her life: James Orotov, a mapmaker and demolition expert. Together, they evade arrest and head north toward a place of wild beauty that lies beyond the megapolis – Lighthouse Island.”
Thoughts: Lighthouse Island is as much about Nadia’s escape from the brutal cityscape as it is about mankind’s perpetual fight against repression and the absurd. Humans will tolerate dictatorships in the guise of benevolent and well-meaning governments for only so long before something happens that changes their minds. What is particularly interesting is the mindset shift between acceptance and revolt, how slowly it happens in some and how quickly in others. Nadia might not be able to recognize the clues, but readers will definitely understand a character’s double-speak and identify the growing disquiet among the masses as well as the increasing panic among the elite as their world threatens to crumble.
Ms. Jiles does her world-building as Nadia attends to her journey. Readers not only get glimpses of the massive cityscape, they also learn a bit more about how the world expanded so hugely and grew into the current government with its lack of time, borders, maps, and the like. However, for something as complex as the Eastern and Western Cessation, there are still plenty of unanswered questions about which readers must either hazard a guess or fill in the gaps using their own imaginations. One gets the impression that James knows the answers but has not shared them with Nadia. As the story is told by Nadia, what she does not know or understand the reader does not know or understand. It is at times a frustrating experience, as there is so much about this strange world that remains inexplicable.
Still, Nadia makes for a most excellent narrator. The speed and frequency with which she adopts new personas and bluffs her way out of dicey situations is both admirable and disconcerting. It is fascinating to see her thought process as she switches from Nadia to someone else. Yet, it does raise the question of whether she is a totally reliable narrator. If she can tell such bald-faced lies so boldly as to avoid detection and arrest, is she truthfully telling her story? Is she even capable of distinguishing between lies and truth anymore? Regardless of the answers to the questions raised by her con artist habits, she carries with her the fragility inherent with any orphan. She may not be a wallflower, but she is obviously searching for a sense of belonging as well as love. That she is extremely clever, fiercely determined, and incapable of quitting makes her underlying delicateness very touching. Then again, with a character like Nadia, discerning how much of her supposed fragility is a lie meant to manipulate readers and how much of it is the truth is most difficult indeed.
The plot may be creative and the heroine delightfully plucky, but the story itself ultimately descends into the ridiculous and convenient. A reader has no doubt that Nadia will ultimately reach Lighthouse Island, but how she gets there is unfairly easy, especially after everything she faces during the first leg of her journey. The world to which readers are first introduced changes so much over the course of the novel that it is unrecognizable by the time she obtains her goal, changing readers’ perceptions and expectations. Also, what happens on the island is suspiciously opportune. People and circumstances have a way of colliding that is just too pat. It makes for a hopeful, even happy, ending, but the story loses its gritty realism entirely as a result. It is a surprisingly dissatisfying ending to what starts out as an imaginative story.
Oh my, this book. I was really excited about it and it ended up so disappointing for me for many of the reasons you mentioned. The world-building was either overboard or non-existent, but never careful enough to give a clear picture of what was going on. And the plot just descended into a mess.
So much potential squandered, wasn’t it? It was definitely a novel of extremes, but in this case those extremes were not connected together very well, and the entire story is just a big mess.