The Language of Sand–Ellen Block


Damage.  Abigail Harker, a PhD-bearing lexicologist, has lost her four-year-old son and husband in a house fire and she flees the site of her pain to Chapel Isle, a lonely island off the Carolinas, where she becomes the new lighthouse caretaker in a lighthouse that no longer shines its saving beacon.  The lighthouse is a mess, people call her Abby, and the islanders are unwelcoming, but Abby sticks it out and makes friends with a handful of locals as she works to clean and restore the lighthouse keeper’s cottage to its previous glory.  Abby’s move is ascetic.  She wants to isolate herself and perform grief as she believes it should look.  When she laughs while listening to a talk show on the radio one day, she catches herself because she’s in mourning and people in mourning don’t laugh.  It’s only when she sees she’s not alone on that stage that she begins to let go a little.

The lighthouse is supposedly haunted and the pursuit of this ghost mimics Abby’s living with the ghosts of her husband and son.  Abby is a lexicographer and Block begins each chapter, one for each letter of the alphabet, with a dictionary-like entry of a word appropriate to the chapter.  It’s a little cutesy, but it sets a tone and keeps with the idea of Abby’s love of language. 

Block is skilled at creating characters of some depth with great economy of language.  Each of Abby’s new friends could have their own novels to explore their back stories.  The island itself becomes a character under Block’s skillful pen.  Or these days probably keyboard.  And, maybe because I’m from a small town,even the bingo scenes resonated as authentic. 

Most compelling, to me, was Abby’s fear of fire.  In the fireplace.  In the gas oven.  Here I felt her loss most closely, even more than when she was caught off-guard by a memory.

Like many of these types of books, there is reading guide at the end.  In addition, there is a too-cutsey interview of the author by the main character.  Block tells us that she wrote this book to deal with loss in the wake of 9/11 and that she’s writing a sequel, which has now been published, titled The Definition of Wind.  I’ll forgive Block the cutesy interview as well as the come-hither author photo and read it because I fell for her characters and can’t wait to meet them again and enjoy Block’s skill at her craft.

Finished 9/27


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