The Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco, were called the "Islands of the Dead" by Coast Miwoks. Sailors knew to steer clear of the jagged, fog-banked granite rocks, nicknaming them the "Devil's Teeth." Later, the U.S. military used the sea nearby as a toxic waste dump. Since 1909, the islands have been protected as a National Wildlife Sanctuary; the only people allowed there now are the scientists who study the local, undisturbed wildlife.
The wild archipelago is also a place where human victory easily crosses the line to human foible. As victories go, there was last summer's swim from the Farallons to the Golden Gate by San Francisco tech worker Kim Chambers, a 17-hour achievement that took her directly through the center of the Great White's "living room." As foible goes, just three years before, five sailboat crew members died when their boat capsized during a race around the Farallons, joining a tumultuous history of shipwrecks, ghosts, egg wars, and shark-infested waters.
The Farallons have been the subject of scientific studies, along with shark- and whale-watching guides and historical books, but -- as far as I know -- they have yet to feature as a protagonist in a fictional tale. That is, until now. With her debut novel The Lightkeepers, a beautifully written literary thriller, Abby Geni cleverly ushers the Farallons into the literary fold.
The Lightkeepers is narrated by Miranda, a nature photographer with a residency that allows her to live on Southeast Farallon -- the only islet fit for human habitation -- for one year. The novel's prologue begins at the end: Miranda is leaving the island, stepping gingerly around the nests of easily angered gulls, and with this we're immediately introduced to Geni's precise, lush descriptions of the Farallon's unique ecology.
"The lap of waves fill the air. The archipelago is shrouded in mist today. In the summer months, the fog is often present. There are no balmy, golden afternoons here, no sunbathing. The horizon is obscured, a damp pinwheel... she must step carefully... her progress is impeded by nests and baby chicks. The gulls have covered the ground like snowfall, making use of every inch of grass and granite."
It's only after the prologue, when the novel shifts from third person to first, in the form of letters written to Miranda's long-dead mother, that we get the story from the beginning. We learn that Miranda is an inveterate traveler, never settling into one place or relationship for too long. We learn that she's come to the island to take photographs, and to live in a small cabin with six biologists -- shark, bird, and sea lion experts all. Almost immediately, she realizes that the Farallons, and the people who populate the cabin, are none too welcoming. But is this much of a surprise in a place literally swimming with twenty-foot long apex predators?
After stroking the rib cage of a Great white shark, from the questionable safety of a small boat, Miranda's fingertips bleed:
"It looked as though I had used a cheese grater on them. Behind me, I heard Forest chortle. Everything in this place, even the shark's skin, was dangerous."
And then there are the gulls, the worst of all.
"They kill for food. They kill for pleasure. They kill for no good reason. They are expert assassins. They soar around the islands with bloody beaks and a mad glint in their eyes."
The passage brings to mind German film director Wernor Herzog's opinions about what he calls the "miserable obscenity" of the natural world. "There is some sort of a harmony here -- it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder," he once said about the Amazonian jungle where he filmed Fitzcarraldo.
And yet despite the violence both outside and inside the cabin, Miranda becomes enamored with the Farallons. It's here that her long isolated soul feels most alive. Here, where the scientists only observe and rarely intervene. Here, where the light-keepers once tended the lighthouse and left the animals alone -- a contrast to the Gold Rush-era egg thieves, who took and took from the island, specifically from the common murre birds, in turn destroying the Farallon's bird population for a time. Miranda grapples with her own nature through the mirror of these true historical events. Is she a taker or an observer? Is she a brute or a protector?
Geni's book joins Island of the Blue Dolphins, an old childhood favorite of mine, in something I've deemed the "California Island" literature canon. Scott O' Dell's 1960 young adult novel is based on the true story of a woman who survived for 18 years alone on the tiny, rocky, virtually treeless island of San Nicholas, the most remote of California's Channel Islands. T.C. Boyle has also set two works of fiction on the Channel Islands; in fact, certain moments in The Lightkeepers, when the island's inhospitable yet utterly natural brutality is laid plain, remind me of San Miguel, Boyle's heart-wrenching novel about ranchers trying to making a go of it on the farthest west of the Channel Islands.
Geni makes it easy to understand why Miranda loves Farallons, despite their challenges, by way of glowing sentences about the cold, breathtaking beauty of the ecosystem. About the arrival of whale season, she writes:
"They come in the late autumn, passing the islands in droves. I have seen them sliding through the sea like nightmares. Despite their size, the whales have an elusive quality. They camouflage themselves as waves, as clouds, as islets, as reflections of light. Blue whales. Gray whales. More than once I have found myself staring at what appears to be an empty ocean, only to observe a column of mist rising against the sky - a gasping exhalation - and realize the sea is full of bodies."
Or this, on the sound of the storm-petrels, a bird that breeds on the Farallons:
"The noise outside was almost symphonic - the deep bass of the sea, the wind wailing like a violin, the treble of the seals, the piccolo of the birds. Wild music."
In reality, very few of us, even those who live only a few miles across the ocean, will ever get to see the Farallons firsthand. The corporeal, technicolor sentences in The Lightkeepers allow us to visit, to inhabit a wild gem of the Bay Area, without actually interfering -- as humans are prone to do -- with the island's brutal grace.
Abby Geni appears at Book Passage, inside the Ferry Building in San Francisco, on Tuesday, Feb. 16. Details here.