Minneapolis native Peter Geye appropriately follows his debut, "Safe From the Sea," a novel about sons and fathers, with "The Lighthouse Road," a novel about sons and mothers. Formally, his first book drew a traditional narrative arc to a rewarding if inevitable conclusion. In his sophomore venture, Geye offers a braided narrative that skips around in time. The result is a richly nuanced collage that keeps readers guessing.
Set primarily in a logging camp and a village on Minnesota's North Shore, these chapters alternate chiefly between the events of 1896 and 1920, and between two main characters, Norwegian immigrant Thea Eide, and her American-born son, Odd Einar Eide. Because Geye subtly subverts trajectory, the first third reads like a novel-in-stories. We may not know right away where we are going, but we don't mind. Geye's stark lyricism diverts us with vivid pictures of nature -- "he could feel the booming surf under his feet, vibrating up through the basalt" -- and character -- "It was his best feature, that smile. It conveyed a minute's speech in a second's time."
Geye playfully underscores the collision of time and place. Two dreamers "lay in silence, each picturing anywhere as though they might someday get there." Snow falls on nearly every page in this profoundly Minnesotan novel, where "days ... turned into night without a moment's notice or pause." The focus is always on home, demonstrating that the closer we look, the more we will discover. "These woods are the world," Daniel Riverfish advises, "and the world ain't an easy place."
As the plot jumps backward and forward in time, a pleasing patchwork of portraits emerges. Every character is a complicated mix of good and evil -- from town doctor Hosea Grimm to his adoptive daughter, Rebekah, to well-meaning lawyer Curtis Mayfair. The effect is one of reading a scrapbook whose pages got loose somehow and were reassembled out of sequence, or of digging through someone else's box of mementos. If as the plot revelations cohere some family weirdness results, and if a few of the later references to Christianity feel heavy, neither issue detracts from the book's overall effectiveness.
By the last third of the book, the puzzle pieces of the parallel narratives of mother and son rapidly come together, taking more than one surprising turn, reminding us that we're reading a good, old-fashioned novel, and a page-turner at that.
"The Lighthouse Road" emphasizes the importance of place in human destiny. Geye layers stories of two generations over one locale, drawing parallels while revealing gaps. Are people actors on the land, or does the land act through people? Thanks to Geye's skilled use of perspective, we understand that the answers aren't easy.
James Cihlar teaches literature courses at the University of Minnesota.