- The Last Lighthouse Keeper, by Jon Bauer. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.
Lighthouses are romantic beacons of a bygone era: symbols of guardianship and protection dotted along the most rugged and dangerous sections of coastline around the world.
These days they are mostly tourist destinations, visited by travellers and passersby who like to imagine what life was like for the lighthouse keepers and their families.
It wasn't an easy existence. The lightkeepers worked hard, 365 days of the year. The weather was often inclement. Wives and families had to make the best of living in isolation.
Some lighthouses have reputations for remoteness and difficulty, especially the lights on Tasman Island and Maatsuyker Island off south-eastern Tasmania. The Last Lighthouse Keeper, by retired lightkeeper John Cook (co-authored with writer Jon Bauer), unflinchingly illuminates the challenges of maintaining the lights on these wild islands.
This is a wonderful personal book that will be enjoyed by anyone who loves lighthouses or is interested in stories of isolation, hardship, nature and landscape. Simply written, it contains some beautiful descriptive passages of the natural world and the challenging weather conditions on Tasman and Maatsuyker Islands. "Daunting and beautiful ... I have since come to believe that any setting is a kind of impressionist painting for us to daub our feelings onto." It is also an honest account of one man's journey through life. The difficulties of marriage. Separation from family. Friendship with animals. The confronting loneliness of isolation. The solace of nature.
There are some great lighthouse yarns. Frightening stories of being transferred from supply ship to island. The terror of being suspended in a flying fox basket above wildly threshing seas. Storms that blew out windows in the lighthouse and lightkeepers' cottages. Myths, legends and ghosts. Character studies of self and other lightkeepers, vividly portraying the impacts of isolation on mental health. Dealing with illness when bad weather precluded emergency evacuation. Division and support among lightkeepers and their families.
Cook's account illustrates that life as a lightkeeper was not for the fainthearted. It's hard to know whether the difficulties and remoteness of the job broke people, or whether broken people were attracted to lightkeeping to escape from the "real" world. Whatever the case, The Last Lighthouse Keeper is an enjoyable and evocative story of life embedded in nature. It contains many moments of illumination of the soul as well as of the light tower itself.
- Karen Viggers is the internationally best-selling author of The Lightkeeper's Wife. Her latest novel is The Orchardists's Daughter.