Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

A couple of years ago, I read the magnificent novel Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye.  Since that time, I've tried to push it on each and every person I know who reads, no matter how infrequently and even if the only thing they ever read willingly is the length of a text message.  Frankly, if you're reading this now without having read that book, go find it and come back here when you've finished!  It's that wonderful.  So when I heard that Geye's second novel, The Lighthouse Road, was being released, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it.

Set in the north woods outside of Duluth, MN both in the late 1890s and the early 1920s, this is the tale of immigrant Thea Eide, a young Norwegian woman who came over to the US to join her uncle and aunt on their farm but instead ends up as a cook at a logging camp, and her son Odd, a fisherman, boat builder, and rum runner in the still remote outpost.  Thea and Odd's tales, set some twenty years apart, alternate and intertwine with the story of Hosea Grimm, the local apothecary who delivers Odd, and his daughter Rebekah.

Thea speaks no English when she arrives in Gunflint and finds herself without resources.  She takes a job cooking at the lumber camp in order to make it through the winter but she is completely isolated there.  The camp's remoteness, her position there, her sex, and her inability to speak the language all serve to keep her alone and friendless in this harsh new environment.  There is a frozen brutalness and an uncaring, almost desperate force to the winter in the camp, a winter when even the wolves in the surrounding wilderness are starving and desperate enough to venture close to human habitation.  And in the cold, bleak, dark days of such a winter, Thea will find herself giving birth to Odd, the tiny baby boy around whom she wraps her very being.  Despite her fierce maternal clutching, Thea lives but a short time, leaving Odd an orphan to be raised by Hosea and Rebekah.

Odd's strange childhood in the apothecary's home, always just outside the unspoken and unacknowledged secrets permeating the house, served to make him quiet and generally solitary although he forges an unbreakable friendship with a native local boy, Danny, and falls in love with the only woman he should never crave.  However, it is only by escaping Gunflint that Odd will ever have a chance to move forward.  So he builds a magnificent boat forged from sweat and heat and love in order to carry him and his love to a new life.  But the ties that bind Odd to Gunflint and its damaged and eccentric inhabitants are tight and cannot be thrown off.  The past is always within him, pulling him backwards, and reminding him of the debt owed others.

Geye has written another affecting and atmospheric novel, an epic of secrecy, loneliness, isolation and the need for and power of love and connection.  The novel is very Scandinavian in feel and although not lengthy, it is best compared to stark Norse sagas.  The landscape itself and sense of place is dramatic and the winters described are lowering and oppressive and set the tone for the  book as a whole.  The characters are all flawed, trapped by their circumstances and their festering secrets, damaged and aching.  They are unable and unwilling to escape their pasts to create something better, instead bequeathing their own silence and easy deceit to the next generation.  This is a stunningly written novel with each element blending seamlessly together to form a well-crafted and potent, if desolate tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. Okay - you convinced me! I just put in an inter-library loan request for Safe from the Sea.

  2. Something about this sounds so compelling - I have added it to my list!


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