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The Lightkeeper’s Wife

By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2012 Don’t be misled by the title and cover of this rewarding book, which is set in a place most of us will never visit – the closest land mass to Antarctica and the land of the South Pole itself. Seems to me that publishers should be aware of other books with the same title before a book’s launch. Another book named The Lightkeeper’s Wife, written by Sarah Anne Johnson, was published in 2014. Karen Viggers, an Australian veterinarian, wildlife scientist and writer, should be annoyed about this, because her book with this title was first published in 2001 and reissued by Allen & Unwin in 2012. Also confusing is the cover of Vigger’s book, which features a dreamy-eyed young woman looking wistfully into the distance. In fact, the lightkeeper’s wife of this novel is a seventy-seven year old woman facing imminent death and looking back on her life. Furthermore, Mary Mason is not the narrator of the story. Her portion of the book is told in close third person, while the first person part of the narrative is told from the point of view of Mary’s son, Tom. Tom is a most unusual male character –  a shy, melancholic, sweet-natured, diesel mechanic. He’s devoted to his mother, was dutiful to his deceased father, is a bit in awe of his much older brother and sister (though he is forty-two) and has been divorced for some years. That much I can tell you without divulging any more of this story. The book’s strengths lie not only in its intricate tracing of Tom’s character, but its breathtaking descriptions of Antarctica, and in the dramatic coastline of Cape Bruny on the southern tip of Tasmania. A lighthouse was built there in 1838 and was operational until 1996. The fictional lighthouse keeper and his family of the book seem to have lived there in late nineteen fifties to the seventies. Viggers writes brilliantly of the birds and other wildlife of Bruny, constantly buffeted by winds from the Southern Ocean, carrying with them the fierce cold of the Antarctic, which lies directly south of Bruny Island.  It’s still a long way from the world’s southern most landmass, as Viggers makes clear, describing a boat trip of seven days from Hobart to the beginning of the ice pack, and then two to three weeks of cutting through the bergs to get to the scientific stations near the South Pole. Antarctica is so different from the rest of the world, so cold that people have never settled there, that the experience must almost be like going to the moon. Put athletic young men and women together in isolated conditions doing intellectually challenging work they have chosen to do, in a searing cold that makes snuggling in a single sleeping bag the most logical thing to do, and the inevitable happens. Viggers explores the confusing emotional dynamics of the Antarctic experience and the difficulty of re-entry to the “real” world. She’s coupled this unusual human experience with the veterinarian’s  understanding of animal emotions and an Australian’s love for her country’s extraordinary landscape. Recommended.

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