Poet, novelist, and memoirist Paulette Jiles stakes out new ground in her latest novel, eschewing her preferred mode of historical fiction in favour of literary dystopia. In Lighthouse Island, Jiles tells the story of a future society suffering from a severe lack of water. Earth is borderless, human activities are governed by the water shortage, and there is little joy for the average person.
The novel centres on the many transformations one woman undergoes as she struggles to stay alive in this difficult world. As a young girl, Raisa is abandoned by her parents and raised in orphanages and by foster families. As she grows, she adopts the name Nadia Stepan and dreams of travelling to the northern part of the world, where she can take refuge at Lighthouse Island, a vacation spot advertised on government-
controlled television. Nadia is convinced that if she can make it there, she will find her parents and freedom. She sets off on a perilous voyage; along the way she meets James Orotov, a young, crippled mapmaker, who becomes her companion on the journey.
Jiles is skilled at creating a vividly imagined near-future world. The language showcases the author’s poetic strengths: “She gazed out over the massive smoking hive that was the city and all the world, a kind of gray silicate crystallization going on into infinity. It has to be a universe constructed by something other than human beings; people were only minute units in the dry passageways, a hive in the middle of the waterless world.”
However, this focus on lyrical descriptions of the barren Earth works to the detriment of plot and character, frequently impeding a reader’s engagement with the story. The result is a narrative that is draggy, wordy, and slow, and keeps the reader at one remove from the action.