What truly separates people from the wilderness of the Earth they inhabit? Geni, author of the short story collection The Last Animal (2013), continues to provocatively prod these boundaries in her debut novel.
The Farallon Islands are a rocky archipelago 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Now a wildlife preserve, they are rich in birds, sharks, whales, and seals. The only humans are biologists who live in a small research cabin. Whether the islands are, in real life, as treacherous, desolate, astonishing, and beautiful as experienced by Miranda, the novel’s protagonist, is near impossible to know; they are closed to the public. But Miranda gains access to the cabin—and its strange family of quirky researchers—as a nature photographer. She is to spend a year capturing the crumbling landscape and copious wildlife of the historically named “Islands of the Dead.” A loner by nature, Miranda falls in love with the place, and she stays in love, though she quickly suffers an assault at the hands of one of the biologists. More violence follows, and the question of whether it is wrought by human hands or the island itself hangs over the book like a fog. Miranda’s travelogue, at once emotional and dreamy and rendered in crisp, stunning prose, is so central to the book that readers may at times forget the underpinnings of the locked-room mystery or brush off the question of her reliability as a narrator. And yet, at other times, the expository velocity is so unrelenting that the prose could almost get lost in the momentum. But not entirely—Geni may be unmatched in her ability to describe nature in ways that feel both photographically accurate and emotionally resonant.
Natural wildness, human unpredictability, and the subtle use of literary devices are woven here into a remarkable, vertiginous web.