Title: The Keeper
Author: Marguerite Poland
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014
We begin with Hannes Harker, the lighthouse keeper, who has fallen and is severely injured while automating the last lighthouse on the South African coast that requires this. The era of lighthouse keepers is over, and Hannes has his own painful memories with regard to this ending.
While recovering in hospital, he begins to unburden himself to nursing sister Rika, who takes on the role of focaliser trying to make sense of the mystery. We plunge deep into the past, to the tragedy of why Hannes’s mother drowned herself in a well, and also into the near-past where we meet Aletta, Hannes’s estranged wife. The lighthouse presides over everything, both lightgiver and beacon, and brooding mistress.
People cope with the isolated existence on the island in different ways. Their motivations for living there differ wildly. For some it’s an all-consuming vocation, as it is for Hannes and his father before him. For others it’s a prison sentence, to be endured. Others make the best of it, and find their coping mechanisms. All are twisted in some way by this encapsulated environment, trapped even.
Symbols abound, from the macabre badge of office represented by the great rusty shark hook to the delicate lighthouse sculpture made from shells painstakingly collected by gentle hands. Make of these images what you will – they are enduring.
But it’s not so much the setting and the tragedies of the players strutting the dismal stage Poland has set up, but also her exquisite use of language. Birds abound, and for those of you who’ve read Taken Captive By Birds, you’ll understand those moments when she adds this typical signature throughout The Keeper. But then there’s also her understanding of environment, of the ocean’s mercurial moods, that paint in broad brush strokes the essence of the setting. I was instantly transported and enthralled.
Poland paints a story told not so much by what is shared, but also that which is left unsaid. The ending, much like real life, leaves pieces unfinished, conclusions untold, that hurt, give hope and also leave a delicious ambiguity.
The fact that The Keeper won the 2015 Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice award comes as no surprise. The tale haunts me, and has made its way to my Top Reads for 2015 shelf.