Sunday 15 September 2019

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter: A light burns so brightly

Fiction: The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, Hazel Gaynor, Harper Collins €14.99

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter
The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter

Anne Cunningham

Hazel Gaynor has, in previous novels, written about factual historical moments and then deftly woven a cast of fictional characters around those facts. Her latest novel repeats the formula, with the introduction of the very real Grace Darling and the fictional protagonist Matilda, separated by a century but connected by the sea, among other things.

Grace Darling was the lighthouse keeper's daughter on the Farne Islands and in 1838, she helped rescue survivors from the wreckage of the Forfarshire passenger steamer. Hungry for a heroine, Victorian England threw Grace into the limelight, although she detested the publicity. She remained unmarried and died just a few short years later. Her untimely death immortalised her and much has been written about this reclusive young woman.

Matilda Emmerson is a 19-year-old girl "in trouble" and the year is 1938. Her parents have decided on an Irish solution to an Irish problem and so they ship Matilda off to America to have her baby. Her home in America is to be with some long-lost relative called Harriet who keeps a lighthouse in Newport Bay.

Matilda is understandably bitter, and matters are not helped when she arrives on the doorstep of her reluctant hostess. Harriet O'Flaherty is one of a number of women keeping lighthouses in the US at the time. She is a loner, utterly absorbed by her job, and has little time for this young Irish girl. The plot reveals an uneasy alliance as it slowly forges itself between these two women, who have a lot more in common than Matilda could ever suspect, with lots of surprises along the way.

In weaving these two strands together, Grace's story based on fact and Matilda's entirely fictional, Gaynor has produced a gem. Without a single jolt, she transports the reader from Victorian England to pre-war America and back again, her prose constantly shifting slightly from one century to the other, maintaining an immaculate aura of authenticity. Gaynor has always been a better writer than her peers, in my opinion, and this exquisite, thoroughly researched book places her a clear head and shoulders above the rest.

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