CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 13 . . . .March 3, 2006
Alistair McCrae, teenage son of a lighthouse keeper on the fictional Lizzie Island off the BC coast, wrote down his hopes and fears in journals. After an idyllic childhood with his parents and his sister Elizabeth, a.k.a. "Squid", on the otherwise uninhabited island, Alistair feels the urge to live and learn in the outside world.
The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter opens with 17-year-old Squid en route to the island with her three-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Squid has returned after three years on the mainland in order to come to terms with Alistair's death and move on with her life.
Did Alistair drown accidentally or on purpose? His overturned kayak was a "thin red smear like bright painted lips on the waves" - an example of author Iain Lawrence's skill with words. Good novels involve suspense, too, and Lawrence achieves this by offering tantalizing bits of information while withholding the answers until later. For example: Who was responsible for Alistair's unhappiness? Who is the father of Squid's little girl? (The island is inhabited only by the four McCraes, who rarely leave it. The only men from outside are those who come on the supply boats, and kayakers and shipwrecked survivors who appeared infrequently over the years.)
The story is told in the past tense, with flashbacks that take the reader further into the past. Usually, when a plot depends heavily on back-story, the author opts to tell the "present" of the story in the present tense, putting the flashbacks in the simple past. Despite the potential for awkwardness, the time shifts work well and serve to show the impact of the past upon the present. "Trying to tell it [the story] as a series of memories was a puzzle that interested me through the planning and writing," Lawrence told an interviewer.
As the story unfolds, the reader gets a clear impression of a bright teenager oppressed by his father's idea of how a man's life should be lived. The island may be "a paradise free of crowds and smoke and noise," but it requires physical strength, practical skills, lack of ambition and a love of solitude. It is not an environment for the weak; consequently, Murray McCrae refuses to believe that Alistair has bad eyesight until the boy has become frustrated and ego-damaged by his handicap. When Alistair moves into an unused shack near the main house and refurbishes it into a home, his shelves turn out badly. He won't ask his father for help: "If he gets started he'll make it into something else." Murray acknowledges Alistair's love of whales and other sea creatures, but he will facilitate Alistair's study of them only to the point of getting reference books and materials shipped in.
Bad father-figures abound in fiction, ranging from Huck Finn's Pappy to Oliver's Fagin. The novels of Richard Russo alone would provide rich fodder for a thesis on this theme. The narrator and central character in Jane Smiley's novella, Goodwill, is similar to Murray McCrae. In Goodwill, a Vietnam War veteran achieves a self-sufficient idyllic rural utopia, away from the capitalist system, only to have matters blow up, literally, when his son engages with the outside world. Both Smiley's and Lawrence's father-figures seek to be gods in control of their little kingdoms.
Shakespeare's The Tempest inevitably springs to mind in connection with The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter. One recalls Prospero, of royal blood, exiled for 12 years with his daughter Miranda on a lonely island, with the magical Ariel and the lowly Caliban for company. Maybe Lawrence has an anti-Tempest in mind. Squid's shipwrecked suitor does not turn out to be the man for her life, as Ferdinand does for Miranda. Lawrence's shipwreck brings doom and tragedy while Shakespeare's brings positive change. Murray has some things in common both with Prospero and Caliban, but in the end, the comparisons are tenuous.
Lawrence "wanted a sad story with people struggling for something they couldn't quite reach and settling for something close. "Yet, in the face of Alistair's short sad life and tragic death, the story, and the family, settle for answers and solutions that seem too easy.
It turns out that the father of Squid's child was an outsider, a kayaker named Erik who happened ashore and spent one night on the beach with her when she was 13. So much for the hint of incest.
Squid gives birth in Prince Rupert, where, we are told, she went on to attend a special class for young mothers and filled her life with "friends and new things," which left no room for her mother's help. She "finished school" (presumably high school, as the time frame doesn't allow for university, unless she's a genius). Then she "found a job that paid nearly as much as Murray earned." In what field can a high school graduate find employment with a starting salary that equals that of a 60-year-old man who has spent all his life in the work force? A great many young people would love to know that. Squid's life with her baby, without parental support ("She never asked for anything") is much easier and smoother than that of most teenage single mums. Apparently she never had any trouble with day care,or missing work when the child was sick.
Back on the island, Squid reads Alistair's journals, including such passages as: "I'm drowning. Can't breathe. Can't surface. Can't escape." She recalls her last conversation with him in which she said, in anger, that she wished her one-night-stand would come and take her off the island so she could get away from her brother. Clearly Alistair's depression reached a new low when he felt that he was losing the one family member who understood him. Yet, after this alarming discovery and a subsequent frank talk with her mother, Squid feels absolved. The two women bury Alistair's journals so that his father will never read them.
Murray McCrae gets off too lightly. Squid tells her mother that she was afraid to bring Tatiana to the island for fear it would "take her over." Yet, despite his colossal failure with adolescents, Murray apparently has a winsome way with tiny tots, so much so that Squid actually leaves the child to spend the summer with him and her mother. Quite apart from Murray's negative history with children, the rough island terrain, fraught with physical danger for a preschooler, would seem reason enough for Squid not to entrust the child to the elder McCraes.
Late on in the novel, we learn that Squid has a new man in her life who wants to take her and Tatiana to Australia. Her reference to him pops up out of nowhere near the end of the novel. Usually when a woman revisits troubled birth-family situations, she maintains contact with her lover/fiance/spouse as a lifeline. Think of Home for the Holidays. Surely this mystery man should be a presence, if only in Squid's heart and mind, to sustain her through the trauma of remembering her brother. Squid shares plenty of thoughts with the reader, but none of him!
While Lawrence's depiction of Squid's life as a young mother lacks authenticity, he has created a convincing and tragic figure in Alistair. That and his rendering of island life sustain the novel.
Recommended with reservations.
Ruth Latta, a writer and teacher lives in Ottawa, ON.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.