Iain Lawrence is a writer who is as versatile as he is talented. In his previous novels, he has covered such diverse subjects as albinism and traveling freak shows, traditional sea faring yarns, and the horrors of the First World War. His latest novel, The Lightkeeper's Daughter, works on a much smaller canvas, but is no less intense.
Lizzie Island is a small island off the coast of British Columbia. For years, its only inhabitants were Murray McCrea, the keeper of the lighthouse, his wife Hannah, and their two children, Alistair and Squid (Elizabeth). When the book opens, only Murray and Hannah are on the island. Alistair is dead, having drowned at fifteen¨no one is sure whether this was an accident or suicide. Seventeen-year-old Squid is returning, after an absence of three years, bringing back her daughter, Tatiana, for the first time to meet her grandfather. Squid's visit is her attempt to face the mysteries of her family so that she can move on to a new life in Australia. But the visit becomes a catalyst which causes all the McCreas to dredge through memories in an effort to understand Alistair's short life, his death, and the parts they played in both.
Murray McCrea, in some ways the most interesting and best realised character of the book, is a man in hiding from the world. Lizzie Island with its wild beauty, and lack of people provides him with a sanctuary from his inability to deal with his past in a hard scrabble mining community and what he sees as the evils of civilization. Hermit-like by nature, he is a man who is surprised by his own capacity for love, first for the young kayaker, Hannah, who lands on the island and who stays and eventually becomes his wife, and then for his two children, the mercurial, passionate Squid, and Alistair, who shares his father's awkwardness of character without recognizing it, and longs for a world greater than the island, even though he would find it hard to cope there.
Murray's love for his family is both wonderful and terrible, shaping their characters, and eventually contributing to the tragic events that cause the family to fragment.
Although the reader knows from the outset that Alistair is dead, the mystery of how and why he died, and also the mystery of Tatiana's father's identity, are not immediately revealed. Lawrence uses shifting view points and fragments from Alistair's diaries which Squid discovers to gradually explore these, allowing the reader to share in the subtle ways in which his characters start to make sense of their lives and face up to their fears¨fears which in the case of Hannah are very dark indeed. This results in a dense, sometimes confusing narrative, but one which ultimately makes sense and which contains within it some of the most beautiful writing and imagery I have ever found in a book for young adults: the picture Lawrence draws of the dying whale, symbolic, perhaps, of Alistair, is one that is hard to forget.
All of Lawrence's books, including The Lightkeeper's Daughter, have been published with an American publisher, and whereas they have received great praise in America¨many making prestigious short lists¨they seem less well known and recognised in his own country. Let's hope that The Lightkeeper's Daughter fares otherwise. It is a magnificent achievement, emotionally harrowing but ultimately evoking a sense of redemption.
Gillian Chan's latest novel is A Foreign Field; Her book, A Carved Box has just been nominated for the OLA's Red Maple Award.