Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Christina Schwarz’s The Edge of the Earth (2013)

“I’m not gong to let on I was born here,” Jane begins. It’s 1977 and she is eighty-four years old, touring the lighthouse at Point Lucia which she last saw when she was 19.

Atria Books - Simon and Schuster, 2013

Atria Books – Simon and Schuster, 2013

Christina Schwarz’s novel immediately immerses readers in another time and place, not only through the present-day narrative, but through Jane’s memories.

The lighthouse used to smell of “pipe tobacco, kerosene, oil, and woodsmoke”, but now it smells only of stone when she returns as a tourist.

Now, the path she walks is “asphalt instead of rocky dirt”, but the “vistas are so much the same that I might be a girl again, my pinafore whipping in the wind”.

The Edge of the Earth is, however, more Trudy’s story than Jane’s, and it is Trudy’s experiences which have drawn Jane back to the lighthouse both in consciousness and geography.

Trudy came to the lighthouse on Point Lucia when she was a young married woman; Jane Crawley was six years old at the time.

For Jane, life in the lighthouse was the only life she had known, but, for Trudy, it was a stark and startling departure from what she had known of life.

“From the safe and dully familiar perspective of my room on Tenth Street, the notion of going someplace as unusual and romantic as a lighthouse was enticement enough. It would be a grand adventure….”

But a grand adventure? Trudy has a romantic vision of her life on Point Lucia; the reality does not conform to her imaginings.

“Who was I here? Not Trudy Schroeder, pampered daughter, lively friend, bright student, all but affianced to steady Ernst Dettweiler. Here I would be a disappointment because I didn’t know how to make butter.”

Nonetheless, Trudy is a determined and forthright young woman. Intelligent and spirited, she pursues the unexpected.

“What had I wanted? I’d been sure of only [one] thing: I wanted something that I did not. Well, I’d gotten it.”

She follows her husband from the Midwest to a promontory three hundred and sixty feet about the Pacific Ocean. One hundred and fifty miles south of San Francisco, surrounded on three sides by the Santa Lucia Mountains, their only contact with the wider world is via supply boats which visit three or four times annually, which land on the beach below the station, the only access along the rugged coastline.

Notice no further mention of Ernst Dettweiler; Trudy was “all but affianced” to a steady man, but Trudy’s description of herself is placing those expectations in contrast to her current life. (Anyway, it doesn’t seem likely that a man named Ernst Dettweiler would journey to the middle of nowhere, does it?)

Indeed, Trudy’s husband is not steady. She herself recognizes the contrast with Ernst. Though, arguably, as much for the light in which this allows her to view herself as for what she sees in this other man.

“The criticisms I’d heard of him were nothing except the fears of those who had neither dreams nor daring. I saw that he had superior understanding, and with it he saw me as no one else did, as someone different, even – dare I say – better than others had supposed.”

And, yet, although this new “adventurous” life appears to hold great promise, when she arrives, Trudy is put to work teaching the neighbour’s children. (There are three shifts required to man the lighthouse, so there are two other men on the island: one married with children, the other his brother-in-law.)

“Perceiving the irony of having traveled thousands of miles only to do what I might have done in a more elevated way in Milwaukee, I quietly swallowed my gristle.”

Christina Schwarz’s language is unadorned, but there are occasional images which involve the reader’s senses, like this swallowing of gristle. Another striking simile is that which describes the young couple’s promises to each other before they left for the west coast, promises they gripped “as tightly as we would the rungs of a ladder”.

Ultimately the novel is character-driven, rather than a showcase for either language or plot, and rooted in a remarkable landscape.

Perhaps even more significant for the narrative than Point Lucia’s isolation is the fact that it is a confined space.

This shapes the relationships on the island fundamentally, and creates the opportunity for drama as the reader explores (along with Trudy) the boundaries of this new territory (literally and figuratively).

Throughout this process, Mrs. Crawley is not a natural ally for Trudy; she is, in fact, at odds with Trudy in many ways, and, yet, she possesses an experience, having inhabited this milieu for some years, that is essential.

“’You’ll learn, Mrs. Swann, that privacy must be respected here.’ She gave the sheet she was about to hang a violent shake to discourage wrinkles. ‘When you’re living this close to people, sometimes you have to look the other way. There’ll be times you’ll want them to look the other way, too.’”

Trudy, however, is headstrong and emboldened by her decision to leave a set of expectations behind in deciding to come to the Point. Despite Mrs. Crawley’s warnings and restrictions, Trudy is dissatisfied with Mrs.Crawley’s pronouncements.

(One of the elements of this story which I most enjoyed cannot be discussed without revealing an essential plot development; the author’s theme of identity as it relates to intimate relationships — and love and loss — takes an unexpected turn.)

A lighthouse is a beacon of safety; it guides the way to harbour for those who are lost or struggling. The lighthouse on Point Lucia, however, affords Trudy the opportunity to enter a wilderness.

From my girlhood days of watching the Disney film “Pete’s Dragon”, I have found the idea of life in a lighthouse fascinating, and it holds an appeal for many others as well.

In M.L. Steadman’s The Light Between Oceans, Tom and Isabel live in a lighthouse off the west coast of Australia. In Margaret Elphinstone’s Light, a lighthouse is built off the Isle of Man in 1831. Part of Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife also unfolds in a lighthouse. And, most recently, HilaryScharper’s Perdita, set on Georgian Bay: imagine something like this. (There is no lighthouse in Karin Altenberg’s Island of Wings, but there are many other similarities, despite the lack of lenses.)

Even if readers are not inherently drawn to novels about lighthouses, The Edge of the Earth is an engaging tale of discovery. Christina Schwarz has a reputation for writing textured and suspenseful novels and her latest will satisfy those expectations.

Have you read her work before?  Is this one on your reading list?

6 comments to Christina Schwarz’s The Edge of the Earth (2013)

  • Like the sentence about her inability as a butter maker. At first when I read it I thought the reference was to how she doesn’t come up to the standard of women in the community . But the. As I read on I saw it had more of a fundamental role in their life. If you only get supplies a few times a year then you have to be self sufficient

    • It’s quite interesting, the way that expectations of her as a woman shift (and, sometimes, don’t) in this starkly different environment. I have the idea that some of her other novels take on that theme as well, but from other directions.

  • I hadn’t heard of this one before but it sounds really interesting. I haven’t read any books set around lighthouses. I would really like to read The Light Between Oceans though.

    • I think you’d like them both, Jessica; as much as I love the lighthouses, they really are stories rooted in relationships and life-shaping experiences, which can develop in and out of lighthouses of course.

  • It is indeed on my nightstand–well, reading pile…it hasn’t quite made the nightstand yet (as is, too, The Light Between Oceans). I have this thing about books with lighthouse settings, as weird as that sounds (have you read Sena Jetyer Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife (a favorite book of mine). I live as far away from the ocean as you can get pretty much (well, in the US that is), so of course I want to live right next to one. See, it’s books like this and reviews like this that get me into trouble as now I want to go pull it from my pile to start reading Now.

    • The lighthouse parts of Ahab’s Wife really stood out for me; I’m certain you’d enjoy this one too. I know you have a hundred bookish temptations ahead of you right now, but I really do think this one reads quickly (unlike some), which might be some consolation, should you pull it off the shelf sooner rather than later!

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