On the surface, this appears to be a rather normal family – a father and mother, a grandmother, an adult daughter and son, and a 10-year-old son. They live on an island off the coast of Spain; their home is a no-longer-in-service lighthouse.
Fairly quickly, however, we come to understand that this family is anything but normal. The three older adults have been horribly burned. The older son is brain-damaged, the result of a fall from the lighthouse stairs when he was a young child. The daughter had just given birth to a son of her own. She wears a mask, ostensibly to hide her disfigurement from fire. The grandmother is blind, an injury from the fire that burned the family. And while the family lives in the lighthouse, their home is the underground part of the lighthouse – and they never go outside.
The 10-year-old boy, born in the lighthouse, has never been outside his underground home. He has to imagine what “outside” is like. As he’s gotten older, the boy begins to question the family’s situation. Where does their food come from? Who is the “Cricket Man,” the mysterious figure his father says will stuff little boys in his sack and carry them off? Where did his sister’s baby come from? And are the family’s injuries from the fire the real reason they live underground?
A small group of fireflies manages to enter the family’s underground home. The boy captures them in a jar. And they provide the only natural light in the home. The fireflies will eventually help the boy learn that nothing is what appears to be.
The Light of the Fireflies by Spanish author Paul Pen was a bestseller in Spain and Europe. Pen, a journalist and scriptwriter, is the author of The Warning(made into an American film), Thirteen Stories, and Desert Flower (2017), among other works. Two of his works, including The Light of the Fireflies, have been translated into English by Simon Bruni.
What the boy will learn, and what the novel is ultimately about, is the importance of family and how a family can hold together even in the worst of actions and experiences. The Light of the Fireflies is a haunting work, gradually building questions and suspense to a series shocking revelations and confrontations.
Top photograph by Andrew Bui via. Used with permission.