Fiction Novel Review: “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni (an interesting study in literary style)

By | April 27, 2017

Once I got to the point where I could read novels in Japanese, it became difficult for me to budget time for English novels. Although I still read much faster in English and would say I still enjoy it more on average than Japanese books, each Japanese novel I read will improve my vocabulary, (hopefully) my reading speed, and gradually close that gap.  While one can make an argument an occasional break will help avoid burnout, generally I am more for the immersion philosophy which means I do as much as something reasonably possible. Of course, this also applies to my Japanese studies in general.

Once I started doing Japanese to English translations and that became my highest priority (which includes reading Japanese stories to find things to translate), it seems that I had even less time to devote to reading in my native language.

However, when I look at things a bit closer, one of the reasons I enjoy translation is because my love of English fiction, and this hobby also connects to a long-time desire I’ve had of writing my own short stories and novels (which I’ve done a little bit of, but nothing too series yet, at least nothing I’m ready to try to publish). Furthermore, even the act of translation itself requires a good grasp of vocabulary, grammar, phrasing, and many other things for which reading novels in the target language (English in my case) is one of the best ways to improve.

So when I could grab a spare hour or two, I drove to the neighborhood bookstore and read the first page or two of a bunch of books. Although I typically say I like to read ‘science fiction and fantasy’ the fact is that I often prefer stories that are not easy to pigeonhole in a specific genre, so I just ended up going through many of the ‘top selling’ or ‘recent favorites’ sections in Barnes & Noble.

In the little time I have spent in my own fiction writing and critiquing others works, I developed the strong opinion that a book must really catch my attention from the first paragraph. To be sure, there are many books that have a slow start (or perhaps I am not used to the style and it takes me time to adjust), but end up being great stories. But, given limited time, I’d by far rather make a try at a book that felt great from the first paragraph, or at least the first page.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up on really enjoying the beginning of “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni (published by Counterpoint in 2016). While I don’t think the first paragraph on its own is the best first paragraph ever, it was good enough to get me to read on, and after a few pages I was hooked. Here is the first paragraph just to give you an idea of what the literary style is like:

THE BIRDS ARE making their battle cry. Miranda can see a group of gulls wheeling in her direction. White feathers. Glinting beaks. Mad eyes. She has enough experience with their capacity for violence to recognize their intent. They are moving into attack formation, circling her like bomber jets homing in on a target.

For a good portion of the book, I was really into the style of this book–quite dramatic, with frequent use of creative smilies and other figures of speech that adeptly describe not only the senses of the main character, but also her feelings and thoughts. While I think some parts of the story were a little slow, overall the writing itself is very well paced, flows smoothly, and uses a variety of patterns to keep things interesting.

Some of the emotional descriptions were so realistic that I felt for sure that many of these things had to come from real experiences (or at least feelings) of the author, just as one suspects when you see a skilled actor or actress. While I haven’t researched Geni in much detail, reading her short story collection “The Last Animal” and any books that she publishes later may help answer that question.

From the point of view of looking for a fresh style to analyze, understand, and eventually integrate portions of it into my own translations and writings, this was a great experience. Coincidentally, this book shares an important element with my last major translation project as well as my current one, which is the element of nature. Actually, I would say that is the most important element in the book, more predominant than any one character.

When I read through this book I went in two phases: the first 50-60% I was in the mindset of analyzing the style and appreciating the atmosphere (another major element). But sometime a little after the halfway mark, I got more invested in the story (I think this was partially because it picked up the pace) and stopped paying so much attention to the structure of each sentence, instead just focusing on reading as fast as I could to see how things ended. It was, oddly, a pretty drastic transition: one day I was reading with one mindset, and the next day with a different one.

In this second phase, I felt that the style was actually staring to get a little repetitive, and there was one or two similes near the end that just struck me as over the top. I am not sure if this is because Geni spent more time on plot and less on sentence crafting, because of my impatience and focus shift, or a little of both. However, while I would say I did have a small bout of disillusionment (at least with the book’s style), the story was quite good, and overall I enjoyed it to the very end.

You may have noticed I have said practically nothing about the story itself, even the premise, and this was intentional. In retrospect, I think one thing that increased my enjoyment was being in the dark about what this story was about. Even around the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure where the story was going to end up (and that is mostly a good thing). But I will quote the single sentence of description on the back cover of the book which really piqued my interest before I decided to buy it.

A remarkable debut set on the mysterious Farallon Islands that redefines the way we look at the natural world

Having read the book cover to cover, I’ll have to concede this is an excellently written line, in both what it says and what it omits.

In short, if you are looking for a great novel this is a strong recommendation. The only caveats are that the content is somewhat dark, and there are a few graphic scenes that are definitely not for children or the faint of heart.

I’ll close out this post with a short quote from the book that I liked so much I earmarked the page: (pg. 217)

…The surfboard was heavy. It swayed in my fingers as though it retained some memory of its time among the waves.

I like this combination of sentences because the first short one describes something with simple and plain language, then follows up with a longer sentence that uses a very creative simile.  By the way, I generally see myself  writing passages like the above by connecting them with a comma instead (i.e. “The surfboard was heavy, swaying in my…”), but if you try that you’ll see the flow and feeling is much different, and the cumulative effect of this helps to shape the overall tone of the novel. I think this tendency to frequently employ short sentences like this is a fundamental part of the literary style of this book.

Geni delivers these sorts of great figures of speech so frequently that I started, ironically, feeling that there was a formula to it, and this is a technique that can be learned by anyone. I noticed on the back of the book the author was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, something I may want to investigate further when I get more serious about doing my own writing.

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