Did you hear the true story about the lighthouse keeper’s pet cat that managed to wipe out a whole species of songbirds endemic to New Zealand single-handedly? Apparently this is the only known case of a single individual achieving that dubious distinction. It seems strangely ironic and so typical of our natural history; a tragedy almost kafkaesque in its inevitability and yet it shocks us. The extinction of a species is a huge thing to contemplate: the murder of an entire community; decimation on a scale of absolutes. It’s hard to accept forever as a reality. Surely somewhere on some other remote protrusion of land this foolish bird still sings? Perhaps all our natural scientists and field students have simply not found it?
I had the lighthouse cat at the back of my mind as I read the captivating The Story of Beautiful Girl . The lighthouse motif is used extensively and effectively to structure an epic story of indomitable love in the face of near-impossible circumstances. A much-used familiar theme but in this case skilfully crafted and alive with sincerity. Rachel Simon takes the idea of a lighthouse symbolising safety, moves from the existence of a unique postbox on a farm (a lighthouse with a man’s face that pops up when there are letters), extends the visual symbol to it’s fictional ‘real-life’ equivalent (a coastal lighthouse with a man’s face in front) and succeeds in keeping us glued to the page while she unwraps an intricate human drama around this major lighthouse metaphor with great sensitivity and empathy.
SPOILER ALERT!!! Read no further if you intend to read this novel…
I foresaw the happy ending but not the lighthouse’s major role; such a neat circling back to those first amazing 20 pages. How I admired the fact that Simon took her structural vision for her novel and ran with it! Simon goes where many authors are told not to go; she is unashamedly sentimental in handling a difficult subject; love between a deaf black man and a mentally challenged white woman who have been institutionalised and ignored by society. I wasn’t too sure about the race difference being necessary but that’s what’s admirable; Simon takes her story all the way; no holds barred; as far as she can, to make it absolutely clear that their bond is immutable; to squeeze every last bit of emotion out of the reader that she can. But in the background I had the disturbing image of a vicious predator, the lighthouse cat, chomping away one little bird at a time…
Is that what fiction should do? Take us away from the cold Darwinian hearth of real-life? Give us hope? Make us believe there’s always one songbird left, somewhere? T.S.Eliot said that the human race can’t bear too much reality. I suspect he was absolutely right; especially if you want a NY Times bestseller. Imagine the novel had ended with the lighthouse man metaphorically imprisoned in his tower (aka. lighthouse), consumed with sorrow and loneliness as he waits for the beloved who will never come… Nothing comforting about that. Real life, like lighthouse cats, can’t be controlled, but we can choose which books we choose to read and pass on by word-of-mouth to others. There’s probably a lesson there for writers wanting to join Simon on her New York Times Bestseller pedestal.
On the other hand happy endings don’t make us distraught or induce weeping and they don’t make us tremble; the thunder of unspeakable tragedy does. My physical responses to We Need to Talk About Kevin included dizziness nausea and weepiness, but I could no more have stopped reading than I could have stopped breathing. A marvelous book attacks you in the solar plexus and never lets you go. Perhaps, after all, humans are more robust than we might expect. Perhaps we need both kinds of endings, to remind us that lighthouse stories come in many guises. When does craft move into the arena of art? Is it not when the work itself can move the human heart in a new direction? And is the author who presents the possibility of joy any less an artist than the one who speaks of pain?
I can’t help thinking what a great short story The Lighthouse Cat would make. It should be full of carnage and destruction and unbearable pathos. It should be intensely disturbing; we should see the lighthouse lamp as a speck in the eternal void, hear the diabolical pet cat purr in the light-keeper’s arms.