Monday 8 July 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Hazel Gaynor (2018)

There’s a lot to love about Hazel Gaynor’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, a multigenerational saga interweaving dual historical narratives—one set in 1838, the other in 1938.

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter
The story of Grace Darling, a real Victorian lighthouse keeper’s daughter (1815-1842), who took part in a daring sea rescue off the Northumberland coast, is wonderful material for fiction. And Gaynor augments her tale deftly with additional plots inspired by women lighthouse keepers in Ireland and Rhode Island.

The characters at the novel’s heart—the pregnant, unmarried Matilda, the widowed Sarah, the bereft Harriet and Grace herself—share a capacity for courage, a deep relationship with the sea, and a penchant for attracting tragedy. It’s fun to guess from the novel’s early pages what it is that binds them together, to puzzle out their family trees and look for connections in an inherited book, locket or portrait.

Gaynor writes action particularly well and bookends her novel with it, capturing the sea’s ferocity as well as its beauty in the novel’s opening and later scenes. She also writes believable dialogue, which suggests place and period with the lightest of touches, rather than, for example, overdoing Irish dialect or ’30s slang.

Hazel Gaynor
As with many dual narrative historical novels, the cyclical nature of time is a theme here, with words, ideas and actions echoing through the generations. While the variations in plot kept me guessing, the repetition on a language level sometimes grated—characters are forever soothing each other, for instance, and everyone seems to collect seashells. At times I also wondered if Grace and Matilda felt distinct enough for having been born one hundred years apart. They have the costumes of different periods and speak with appropriate metaphors, but I didn’t feel the difference between their mid-nineteenth- and mid-twentieth-century world views.

Overall, I’d recommend The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter as a great summer read, especially if you’re going to be by the water. As with Amy Brill's The Movement of Stars, the last novel I reviewed as part of this Neo-Victorian Voices series, this read offers an insight into the women who worked during the nineteenth century and pursued passions we might think of as only being explored by men.

Do you have any recommendations of novels the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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