Overcrowding, climate change, mass animal extinctions, government inefficiency, corruption, reduction in literacy, and a lost appreciation for the arts. These are challenges faced by many nations of the world and that make the news headlines daily. Starting with these pressing and frightening problems, author Paulette Jiles has envisioned a bleak North American future where hope is symbolically and literally a beacon on a distant shore.
Nadia Stepan grows up an orphan in the continuous and teeming city where her parents abandoned her at age four, leaving her with only a handful of coins, a note and a drawing of some constellations. “You will be lonely for a while,” her mother said, “but things will get better.” So Nadia was taken to an orphanage (where she experienced a temporary blindness) and ate the sad food, drank her small ration of water, and watched the inane television shows that all people were essentially forced to watch. But Nadia found safety with a few kind people and grew to love an old man named Thin Sam Kenobi. As Nadia grew up, she and Sam would read and listen to the novels and poems broadcast on the mysterious Radio One. He would tell her about the world and give her advice for survival.
"Jiles's prose is just as lovely as her setting is terrifying. Riffing on many of the hallmarks of the dystopian genre but adding some interesting elements, such as weaving in quotes and references to classic literature, LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND is a pleasure to read."
Sam's advice comes in handy when, as an adult who finds it impossible to conform to the mind-numbing demands and lack of security her world offers her, Nadia decides to exit the corrupt system in which she was raised and seek out Lighthouse Island, where she has always believed her parents to be hiding. Lighthouse Island is the northwestern vacation spot promised to television viewers who are able to save enough credits to get there. But, in a society where there is virtually no food or water, where borders and history have ceased to exist, where buildings are imploded with no warning, where citizens are arrested without charges and sent to forced labor camps, prisons, or even to be publicly executed, Lighthouse Island may be just a myth.
At the beginning of her harrowing journey north, Nadia meets James Orotov, a paraplegic demolition expert and covert mapmaker. He, too, wants to leave his frustrating life behind, and with the threat of involuntary surgery and arrest imminent and inspired by Nadia, he decides to make his move. With the help of his skeptical brother, James devises a plan to get Nadia and himself to Lighthouse Island. Once there, however, they find that their dreams of freedom must face harsh and dangerous realities.
Jiles's prose is just as lovely as her setting is terrifying. Riffing on many of the hallmarks of the dystopian genre but adding some interesting elements, such as weaving in quotes and references to classic literature, LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND is a pleasure to read. There are a few unanswered questions, and things come together quite neatly (though not perfectly for the characters) at the end, which may feel frustrating to some readers. However, others may find the mysterious part and parcel of a novel that deals in chaos and the ending hopeful. Awkward at times, Jiles's latest is still tense, lyrical, darkly romantic, strange and satisfying.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 11, 2013