I first read this book not long after it was published. I reread it again earlier this year. Part of the movie of the book was filmed at Highfield House, Stanley (Tasmania) which I visited (for the second time) late last year.
I found this novel challenging to read (I wanted to intervene in the story at times, and change it). I’m in awe of Ms Stedman’s ability to create a novel (her first) which got under my skin like that.
‘A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.’
Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia after four years at World War I’s Western Front. Tom is a shattered man, in need of space, of peace and quiet. His mates did not survive the war, and he does not believe that he should have either. A job as a lighthouse keeper appeals to Tom: it is structured, with its own important rules, and he will have space. After a period of training, Tom is assigned to Janus Rock, off the coast of Western Australia, almost half a day’s travel from the small town of Partageuse. Tom spends some time in Partageuse before being taken out to Janus Rock. Ralph and Bluey, in ‘The Windward Spirit’ will take him to Janus Rock and will bring him supplies every three months or so. While Tom is in Partageuse, he meets Isabel Graysmark, and in 1926 they marry and Isabel joins Tom on Janus Island. They are happy together, and would welcome children to make their family complete. Some years later, after two miscarriages and a stillbirth, Isabel hears a baby’s cry. A boat, carrying a dead man and a living baby, has washed up onto Janus Island. Tom wants to report this immediately. But Isabel, still grieving from the loss of her own children, wants to keep the baby. Surely, Isabel thinks, the baby’s mother is dead. Surely, Isabel thinks, this baby is meant for her.
Tom and Isabel name the baby Lucy. But two years later, when the small family returns to the mainland, what seemed a simple choice on Janus Island becomes much more complicated.
The choice Isabel and Tom made has consequences – for many people.
I’ve read this novel twice, and both times I’ve been torn by the choices made. In trying to care for his wife, Tom makes a decision he knows is wrong. And later, although Tom is trying to right that wrong, others are hurt. Would Isabel have made the same choice if she’d realised the consequences of it? And the child? How can she make sense of what has happened? At its heart, this novel is less about the relative rights and wrongs of choice. It is more about the consequences of choices and how those consequences continue to ripple through lives.
This is Ms Stedman’s debut novel, and I found it an intense and unsettling read.