Review: Hurricane-force novel with a hint of magical realism
“The Light Pirate” by Lily Brooks-Dalton (Grand Central)
Wanda is named after the hurricane she was born in. It’s also the hurricane that changes the trajectory of her life.
“The Light Pirate” by Lily Brooks-Dalton takes place at a time not far from our reality — ostensibly now — and goes on to imagine a frighteningly near-future of encroaching waves and crumbling, unsustainable infrastructure completely changing the landscape and life itself.
In a show of expert pacing, Brooks-Dalton begins the story as Hurricane Wanda approaches. During the sickeningly slow build we spend a good amount of time with each character, getting to know and love them, raising the stakes. The momentum gains as the storm becomes urgent and then right on top of them, the page breaks coming faster — too fast — in pace with the pounding rain and life-or-death struggle as each person realizes they’re entirely not where they need to be to weather the storm.
If you picked “The Light Pirate” up thinking it was slyly half-hiding a magical twist, you’d be kind of right.
The book jacket hints at it, the first part teases it, then part 2 finally shows what we’ve been waiting for: a spark of magic in the otherwise depressing and all-too probable rendering of Florida slowly succumbing to the tide and time.
But the magic part of the magical realism remains slight, teasing; closer to science fiction than pure magic. Brooks-Dalton plays with this idea, asserting that science is simply the pursuit to name and understand something magical. Both become hard to define in the harsh, watery world where science and magic meet and meld into one in the same and also nothing. What weight does naming and categorizing carry when the world is tumbling fast toward uninhabitability? Before Wanda is even 18, her reality is totally different from the one her parents experienced.
Fascinating and fantastical descriptions also hint at magic, capturing the otherworldly experiences of nature at its most powerful and unstoppable.
The novel is released less than a month after the world surpassed 8 billion people, underscoring the ever-cramped space and time with which to handle a temperamental climate and changing landscape. Between the excellent imagery and the current reality, it's easy to picture Brooks-Dalton’s fictional future Florida with places like Pakistan experiencing months-long flooding this year. But the story doesn't tout a pushy message or quick fix, just a reverent observation of nature’s power.
Brooks-Dalton is adept at capturing a situation in its purest form, whether it be a character’s death — brace yourself, as there are plenty of these — or an egret catching a fish. Sometimes this dulls a moment’s impact, other times it wrecks you.
Despite the foreboding topic of environmental disaster, the novel rewards readers with peace and solace after persevering through a series of tragedies that feel too close to home. “The Light Pirate” is a symphony of beauty and heartbreak, survival and loneliness. Combined, it’s a haunting melody of nature.