After three works of historical fiction including Enemy Women, set in Civil War Missouri Paulette Jiles leaps forward in her intriguing new novel to a dystopian, infinitely repeating present.
By WENDY SMITH
The Washington Post
Dates, place names and maps have been eliminated. Earth is one vast city, perpetually hot and dusty. Rain stopped a century ago, water is strictly rationed and the remaining infrastructure cant pump it higher than four floors, so upper stories are abandoned and eventually destroyed.
Jiles paints a rich, creepily persuasive portrait of a diminished society clinging to the vestiges of a higher civilization, right down to the dwindling supply of computers that only a few members of the techie elite know how to use. Her intrepid heroine, Nadia Stepan, is not of this elite.
Abandoned by her parents at age 4, shes raised in an orphanage on an allocation of one quart of water per day. Higher-ups get as much as five quarts; displease your boss and youll be cut to a pint; get into real trouble and youre sent to the dryers.
In this system, where solitude (is) the same as hostility, Nadias fondness for being alone with her books makes her a suspect misfit.
Reading gives her a vision of the past and delivers the cautionary tale of a spendthrift and wasteful way of life that devoured the world and left nothing but a dry husk.
All those stories that Nadia absorbs give her a useful tool when she inevitably falls afoul of the authorities and winds up on the run.
Shes an amazingly resourceful liar; one of the novels great pleasures is watching Nadia confound detection time after time by inventing identities on the fly, wriggling out of tight spots and swashbuckling into forbidden locations. At one point, she bluffs her way into a high-rise building for the elite and emerges on the 50th floor to confront unimaginable abundance: People swimming in a pool full of water.
Lighthouse Island is not an overtly political book, but the shock we share with Nadia at this moment indicts a society where the 1 percent takes for granted water that the majority is literally dying for.
James Orotov, a techie who uses a wheelchair and lives in the building Nadia invades, falls speedily in love with this poetry-quoting dreamer. He helps her search for Lighthouse Island, the rural utopia where she thinks shell find her parents.
Meanwhile the collective mood is changing, and so is the climate.
It actually begins to rain.
The final chapters are a bit muddled. Its awfully late for the elaborate maneuvers and half-dozen new characters Jiles requires to establish her optimistic vision of a better world in formation. Yet its an inspiring vision, warmed by the authors faith that human nature will not forever be satisfied by canned ideas and coercive entertainment.
Would a bunch of hardened prisoners really sit spellbound as Nadia recites a poem by Anna Akhmatova? Perhaps not, but anyone who loves literature will be moved by Jiles insistence that it can reach anyone and change the world.
Wendy Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.