Abby Geni ‘The Lightkeepers’


All the biologists had seasons in which they could focus on their areas of expertise (when their animals ruled the roost) and seasons when they were required to help the others (when their animals were absent). During the summer, Forest, the shark specialist, had been in command.
He and Galen had given orders, and everyone else had jumped to obey. But autumn had brought the whales, and winter would give way to Seal Season, which would be followed by Bird Season. Each biologist had a moment in the sun. This was Mick’s time to shine.


This book, my fourth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and my first by Abby Geni. Miranda, a photographer chooses to come to the Farradon islands, off of the Californian coast for a year, we quickly learn that these inhospitible Islands, where the presence of a few biologists are rythmed by the seasons as explained in the opening quote.

Miranda lives in a world of quiet violence, writing letters she never that can never. arrive to her mother, trying to cauterise a wound from her youth that has seen her wandering the planet taking pictures in dangerous places, never coming closer to solving her internal torments:


I understand now why I first voyaged here. It has taken me all year to come to terms with that choice. Since your death, I have been looking over my shoulder, looking backward. I have been stuck in time. I have been writing letters to you—letters to no one, a body in a cemetery, a woman I knew for only a small part of my life. Hundreds of notes, some sitting in the Dead Letter Office of various cities, others buried and burned and scattered on the wind. I have never once questioned whether writing them was sane or healthy. Now, though, I can see that it was neither. Each letter has been an anchor chain, dragging me back into the past.


The Island itself is full of natural violence amongst the animals, some on a par with violence she has seen in war zones with the act of photography itself described by Abby Geni and practised by Melanie as violence itself:


There is a wonderful violence to the act of photography. The camera is a potent thing, slicing an image away from the landscape and pinning it to a sheet of film. When I choose a segment of horizon to capture, I might as well be an elephant seal hunting an octopus. The shutter clicks. Every boulder, wave, and curl of cloud included in the snapshot is severed irrevocably from what is not included. The frame is as sharp as a knife. The image is ripped from the surface of the world.


Miranda discovers violence herself at the hands of one of the biologists that rapes her leaving her unable to talk about it. Then the rapist is found dead at the bottom of some cliffs and after a police investigation no one is suspected and an accidental death assumed, but the experienced, quiet biologist Galen has been studying the people around him and by analogy realises what has happened:


Galen has had some experience with this phenomenon. The animal mind is one without memory. He has researched it. Most animals are able to recall the short term—the past few seconds or minutes—but anything further back is released from the brain like a balloon on the breeze. Animals retain impressions, rather than stories. They may avoid a dangerous place by instinct. They may shy away from an object that is associated with trauma. But they do not recall specific events. A shark, having devoured a seal, will swim away with a clean conscience, no echo of blood or pain. A gull might kill its own chick in a fit of fury, then mourn when discovering the little body later, unaware of its own guilt, lost in its own forgetting.


No spoiler of course, except inferred, this was a complex, well written parallel study of human and animal life. Well worth the read.


First Published in english as “The Lightkeepers” in 2016, by Counterpoint
Translated into french by Céline Leroy and published as “Farallon Islands” by Actes Sud in 2017

The quotes in French.

Chaque biologiste avait une saison durant laquelle se concentrer sur son domaine de compétence (quand son animal régnait sur les lieux) et celles où il ou elle devait aider ses collègues (quand son animal était absent). L’été, Forest, le spécialiste des requins,était au poste de commandement. Galen et lui lançaient leurs ordres et nous autres nous empressions d’obéir. Mais l’automne avait vu le retour des baleines, et l’hiver laissait place à la saison des phoques qui serait suivie par la saison des oiseaux. Chaque biologiste avait droit à son quart d’heure de gloire. C’était le moment pour Mick de faire des étincelles.

Aujourd’hui, je comprends enfin pourquoi je suis venue jusqu’ici. Il m’a fallu un an pour accepter la raison de ce choix. Depuis ta mort, je passe mon temps à regarder par-dessus mon épaule, à jamais tournée vers le passé. J’ai écrit des lettres — sans autre destinataire qu’un corps dans un cimetière, une femme que je n’ai connue que quelques années. Des centaines de mots dont certaines de mots dont certain prennent la poussière au Bureau des lettres mortes ici et là, d’autres enfouis, brulés ou emportés par le vent. Pas une fois je ne me suis demandé si les écrire était sain ou raisonnable. Maintenant je sais que ça n’était ni l’un ni l’autre. Chaque lettre était une ancre qui me ramenait vers le passé.

L’acte photographique renferme une merveilleuse violence. Ce mécanisme est puissant, qui retranche une image d’un paysage pour la fixer sur un morceau de pellicule. Quand je choisi un segment d’horizon à prendre, je pourrais tout aussi bien être un éléphant de mer en train de chasser un poulpe. L’obturateur émet un déclic. Chaque rocher, vague et volute nuageuse qui entre dans l’image est arraché irrémédiablement à ce qui n’y entre pas. Le cadre est affûté comme un couteau. L’image est arrachée à la face du monde.

Ce phénomène ne lui était pas inconnu. Les animaux n’ont pas de mémoire. Il avait fait des recherches. La plupart des espèces animale n’ont qu’une mémoire à court terme — sur quelques secondes ou minutes — et au-dela. tout leur échappe comme un ballon de baudruche emporté par le vent. Les animaux retiennent des impressions plutôt que des histoires. Leur instinct peut les pousser à eviter un endroit dangereux. Ils peuvent s’éloigner d’un objet associé à un traumatisme. Mais ils n’ont pas de souvenir détaillé des évènements. Un requin qui vient de dévorer un phoque s’éloignera la conscience tranqille, sans souvenir du sang ou de la douleur. Un goéland peut tuer son petit dans un accès de rage puis en faire le deuil après avoir découvert son cadavre, ignorant tout de sa culpabilité, perdu dans son oubli.

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