On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney

This isn’t your grandparents’ tour of lighthouses. No tea cozies and dried flower arrangements here; no mooning over the saccharine details of the sea’s noble histories. Jazmina Barrera’s slim memoir, On Lighthouses—couched inauspiciously as a guide to lighthouses—is properly unhinged. Dodging linearity, subverting convention, eluding particularity, it awes. With these micro-histories of six lighthouses—silent pillars of the coast—Barrera conjures a melancholic ode to the unreachable, quintessential beauty of solitude. You can’t look away.

On Lighthouses hypnotizes in all the ways a book ought to, calling to mind the very nature of books. Meek and pale, washed ashore of life’s rapid tides, the reader and her book are already strange figures in our world, lonely spirts drifting for hours alone, outside of time and place. In this sense—in Barerra’s sense—a book is a lighthouse and its reader the sunken-eyed keeper haunting its hollow passages, lighting its searchlight night after night. And we’ve only just stuck our toe in.

Alexandria to New York, With Stops Along the Way

Barrera’s literary tour of lighthouses begins in Oregon, with a friend of a friend, and the journals of one of the earliest lighthouse engineers, a man who also happens to be the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island! and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Throughout, Stevenson’s grandfather acts as a kind of buoy, wresting Barrera back, time and again, from depressive riptides and the shallow crags of bad company. An awareness of Stevenson and her own Jekyll and Hyde ambivalence does not escape Barerra.

Allusion runs deep in her descriptions. Visiting the Yaquina Head lighthouse, she and a posse of friends stay in rooms named after famous authors. First the Poe room, then the Hemingway room; there’s a room dedicated to Virginia Woolf, but it’s unavailable. A chorus of authors from Whitman to Franzen bubble up in tangent after tangent. In a single page, Barerra glides across time from Alexandria to New York, bending, at times, even the notion of what a lighthouse itself is: is Central Park an urban lighthouse? Is the Eiffel Tower a lighthouse? If a lighthouse is that fixed point by which we mark our place in the world, she argues, we are all continually mapping our own personal lighthouses onto the world—the street where we grew up, our first apartment, park benches, birthdays, lost loves, lost ones.

From Oregon, Barrera moves to New York. She visits the Little Red Lighthouse in Washington Heights, “a lighthouse at the end of the island, at the end of the river.” Out in Montauk, on a whim, she chases down another, where, “despite the fact that we were able only to put our heads into the head of the lighthouse for a moment, like Whitman, we saw ‘that inbound urge and urge of waves, seeking the shores forever.’” In France, she is led meanderingly through the countryside of Normandy to the Goury Lighthouse, which she later recalls “as being identical to Millet’s in the painting called Bateau de pêche.”

Slowly, the histories fall away, and Barerra’s involutions lay bare. On Roosevelt Island, she visits the Blackwell lighthouse and remarks, “I am falling in love with an idea of beauty that feels too much like death.” Her trip ends, as the structure of the narrative collapses into a scattering of journal entries (not unlike the journals of Stevenson’s grandfather), at the Tapia lighthouse in Spain: “I feel that the written experiences of others are much, much closer than those lived in flesh and blood.”

Is Central Park an urban lighthouse? Is the Eiffel Tower a lighthouse?

Like any lighthouse, grounded and yet always at sea, On Lighthouses delights in paradox—the pull between duty and desire, ennui and mania, contentment and fear. The bibliography runs pages long, a cluttered bricolage of research. Barrera’s “study” of lighthouses is frenetic while her descriptions of them ring immaculately laconic. She is, in other words, definitively undefinitive.

A palimpsest to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City or Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, On Lighthouses reflects the same pallorous joy as other homages to loneliness. These are lighthouses viewed through a dark mirror; they typify something essential to solitude, broken-heartedness, and isolation—to reading! There is nothing forlorn in Barerra’s rendering, though; On Lighthouses, and the writing of it, is Barerra’s own lighthouse. She enjoys the grey light—it is, after all, on the most overcast days when the light beaming from these steady, voiceless totems is most necessary.

“It’s a passion for anesthesia,” she writes. “I know it can be an egoistic, arrogant desire, the attitude of someone looking down from above, from a tower. That’s why I find lighthouses so attractive: they combine that disdain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others.”

That “it” she speaks of is where On Lighthouses finds its own unique footing: it’s Barerra’s genuine desire to become a lighthouse. To literally morph into something so stoically of this world and yet removed, something watching and reading the world but staying at a remove and being lauded for keeping out of the way: an honest, egomaniacal kind of public introversion, a spirit desirous of appreciation for contributing nothing more than the rote task of being.

I have read the book twice and kept it close at hand at night—a light in dark times. There is such strange comfort here, a secret dream we all vainly nurture: that in these hollow, haunted bodies, staring blankly out into the vacant world, lies something innately beautiful. Barrera has given every lonely soul and reader a lighthouse all her own—a fixed point, in days of solitude—a mental anchor to the earth as we drift aimlessly at sea.

Andrew Unger is a writer and former bookseller based in Brooklyn