Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Friday Book Pick: The Lighthouse by Michael O’Brien
Like opening the door of a magic wardrobe, to crack the cover of a novel is to free fall into another world. Traveling to unknown lands can be a dangerous enterprise, and as every seasoned traveler knows, a certain savvy and street smarts is useful to avoid being needlessly endangered. Why should journeys made interiorly be any different? Shouldn’t one be at least as cautious about subjecting ones inmost being to needless dangers and unworthy guests? Being thoughtless and undiscerning about literature (and lesser media) consumed is akin to a naïve wandering into a field of landmines or holding the door open for unwanted guests. If you cringe at the thought opening the front door of your home indiscriminately to strangers, why the door of your mind? What you take in matters.
Reading Michael O’Brien is reading a Catholic author who possesses a Christic imagination: an imagination formed by the powerful reality of things unseen, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity being the central most. In a fictional story springing forth from such a mind, even the darkest shadows and terrors therein will not leave you in hopelessness, for the undercurrent of redemption will quietly rise and permeate even the most tragic developments. Such is the case with the novels of Michael O’Brien. With an intellect and imagination formed by his faith, his art springs like wholesome food from a rich fertile soil.
O’Brien is known as a Catholic artist and author, but he does not fit the stereotype of the preachy moralist. Talented writer that he is, his characters come easily to life, and reading his novels, you will find yourself quickly moving from silent observer—on the outside looking in—to immersed participant. You don’t watch the turbulent ocean with Ethan McQuarry in The Lighthouse, you see it through his eyes.
The Lighthouse is the tale of a man rejected. Forsaken by a father he never knew and abandoned by a mother he did know, he is utterly alone in the world. With a partial education from books and fractured education in relationships, Ethan possesses a determination to be a better person than the examples he has known. He also seems determined to keep human interaction at bay.
At a young age he winds up working as an apprentice to a lighthouse keeper on a rugged outcropping of Cape Breton Island off the coast of Nova Scotia. In time, the apprentice receives the watch-post as his own.
The rugged, solitary existence, the unrelenting rhythm of the sea, and the regularity of the work conspire to heal Ethan with the passage of time. God works the healing of His children in a thousand creative ways, and this reality gently permeates the novel.
One day, Ethan discovers a lifeboat half-wrecked on the rocky coast of his little island. The boat, he surmises, has come detached from the stern of a larger ship. Surveying “the great gift the sea had cast upon his shore,” Ethan makes a decision on its worth: “he felt at first that it was beyond redemption.” It had been badly hurt and “he did not want to discard any hurt thing.” First, Ethan undertakes rescuing the wreckage from the rocks in which it is wedged. Once rescued, with unhurried effort Ethan sets out to rebuild the lifeboat in a painstaking, deliberate and thorough manner. “He was restoring its former glory by degrees.” The boat becomes a metaphor for the rebuilding of Ethan’s own life. We experience the progress on the boat unfolding over not years, but decades. The love Ethan pours into the boat is a small reflection of the love that the unseen and unnamed God is pouring into him. He, too, is being restored to his “former glory” over the decades of his life.
Even though Ethan has no religious influences or even a modest exposure to faith, he is sensitive to nature, and to people as well. Being unhindered by pious lingo or traditional formulas for speaking about supernatural realities, he describes an awareness of a presence which he calls “the awakeness” and experiences around him a “listeningness.”
Michael O’Brien manages to create a convincing character who, without the benefit of revelation, tradition, or sacramental grace, manages to open himself to the good, the true, and the beautiful by entirely natural means. It is not that God is absent from the story, quite the contrary. God is the unnamed Presence Who heals Ethan in the only way Ethan can receive it.
This rich tale dramatically highlights the value of human life and the importance of human communion. The story development yields healing, and beyond healing redemption, and beyond redemption—self-sacrifice. And while I refuse to spoil the intrigue of an unread story (because I hope you will read this captivating and thought-provoking tale), I will warn you that as you experience Ethan himself being healed and saved, you may not be able to avoid asking the question: “Which of God’s thousand creative ways is God using to heal and save me?”
Mother Clare, CFR