Apparently, this is M.L. Stedman’s first novel, which I would not have guessed. It is an incredibly complex story filled with complex characters, histories, geography, and emotions. As I began reading it, I immediately sensed that this was a story about good people with good intentions, while also realizing it was not going to end well. Ultimately, it does end “well” in the way a Hollywood movie has to end “well” and that, for me, was it’s only flaw, but an understandable one, because the author apparently needed to relieve the reader of the intense sadness that builds up throughout the final third of the book. There isn’t a “bad” person in this book but everyone is affected by what turns out to be a bad situation.
The story begins by introducing a WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne, who returned from the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme unscathed physically but tormented with survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and having shut down and compartmentalized his feelings to protect himself. This latter approach to life had begun in response to a harsh childhood and was exacerbated by his war experiences, so by the time he arrives in the town of Port Partogeuse, Western Australia, he has become someone who will never love and will always be alone, and at this point, is perfectly satisfied with this understanding. He sees himself as flawed and incapable of being a person who could be loved and appreciated. Nevertheless, we see an inkling of the person he’d rather be when he rescues a woman who is on the same boat as he when he is traveling from Sydney to Port Partageuse; she is accosted by an arrogant, abusive man and he runs interference for her, and she in turn is surprised by the quiet way and self-deprecating manner he in which he presents himself.
As part of this persona, he has accepted a position to maintain the lighthouse on Janus Rock, a small island off the coast of Western Australia, feeling it is suitable employment for someone like himself, who should be alone. He understands there will be only seasonal contact with the supply boat, approximately every third month, and no shore leave for very long lengths of time. Just before leaving Port Partageuse, however, he meets an unusual young woman, Isabel, 10 years his junior, who sparks a joy within him he hasn’t experienced before; while posted at the lighthouse, he receives intermittent correspondence from her and they reunite as friends the next time he returns to shore, and they hastily marry with her agreeing to go to Janus with him, understanding the social deprivations there. They are so in love with each other and each is in awe of the other so that little else matters. He in particular is so enamored of her willingness to love and accept him as he is, even when she’s unable to penetrate his reluctance to share past details about his life, that he will do anything for her, and this becomes the source of his horrible moral dilemma.
While on the island for the first two years, Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth, and she becomes angry, sad, guilty-ridden and despairing. Tom doesn’t know how to comfort her or make her return to him emotionally. Their isolation only exacerbates the situation. And then a rowboat washes onto Janus Rock and in it is a dead man and a live baby. Tom immediately wants to report this to the authorities but after much pleading from his wife, he relents to her need to keep the baby, who is only about 3 months old, and they’ll pretend it’s theirs. They bury the dead man, who has no identification. Tom feels torn between what he has done and what he should have done, i.e., reported the baby’s survival so that if there was a mother waiting for her, she could be returned. Nonetheless, they name the baby Lucy, and Isabel becomes the mother she believes God meant her to be by sending this child, arguing with Tom that the mother undoubtedly drowned, as evidenced by a woman’s sweater that had been in the boat.
Over time, they become an ideal family and Tom is as much enamored of the child and fatherhood as Isabel is of the child and motherhood, and they are wonderful parents. During one trip to shore, however, the seeds of doubt begin to emerge for Tom when he hears of a woman named Hannah who lost her husband and child at sea. He begins to feel a rift between himself and Isabel as they struggle with the possibilities that Lucy belongs to this woman and they, Tom in particular, realize their decisions have caused horrible pain to another human being. Tom begins to relate the guilt he feels with their initial decision to the guilt he feels about surviving the war, and over time he begins to feel more and more guilty. He also realizes that no matter what choices he makes now, there will be trauma for many involved, himself included, and we see him struggle in a no-man’s land of conscience.
I won’t go into details about the decisions and results, but will say that I was in tears in several parts of the book, including the end that I previously described as a bit too “Hollywood.” I felt somewhat manipulated at the end. Throughout the rest of the book, however, I truly felt these characters were totally realistic, well-developed, and each and every one of them deserved better than they got! Yet I also felt there were impossible decisions these characters had to make, and as each did so, could understand and feel the heart-wrenching agony for each of them. There were some unexpected decisions but even these made sense from the point of view of the character, and none of the final decisions or choices left me thinking they weren’t true to character or to the story.
This was a book full of exploring isolation, courage, loss, grief, desperation, trauma, guilt, and morality, with a clear understanding that often right and wrong are indistinguishable, and what is considered right or wrong can be colored by one’s past, even when the past is long buried – it has its way of surfacing. Once I had finished reading this book and sat with my feelings and tears, I knew it was also a book that would stay with me for a very long time, and even while reading it, I could easily find myself asking, “What would I do?” I vacillate between giving this three stars or four, but decided it may not be great, but it’s very, very good, and a favorite, thereby earning five stars. I do warn readers, however, to be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride and to have plenty of tissues on hand toward the end.