I have not read a heart-wrenching, dramatic novel such as this one in a long time.
The power of a parent’s love is clear and it is strongly felt, even if you have never had children. The time period of the novel matches the plot perfectly, providing a somber backdrop to the story, which is set in Australia (1920s).
Tom Sherbourne has just come back from serving in the first World War and although he has survived, there are things he lived through and witnessed that he wouldn’t wish on anyone. Estranged from his brother and father, Tom is offered the post of a lighthouse keeper on isolated Janus Rock.
After being on the island for six months (keeping the seaway safe for ships and maintaining the lighthouse), Tom goes back inland to the town of Partaguese, where he meets his future wife, Isabel Graysmark. He is amused by her and despite her being nine years his junior, is easily charmed by her personality. It is not long before he returns to Janus Rock, taking on the lighthouse keeper’s role permanently, with Isabel as his wife.
It is their efforts of trying to become parents without success that starts to take the wind out of Isabel’s sails. Shortly after they lose another child by a late miscarriage, a miracle washes upon the shores of Janus Rock. The findings are bittersweet: in a small fishing boat, the couple discover a dead man and a baby girl, who is barely two months old.
The infant is alive and healthy but the absence of a mother is troubling. Isabel can only conclude that if there were a mother, she is surely gone as well. Tom is hesitant about what to do with the baby but he is adamant about writing the event in the lighthouse log and sending word to Partaguese about it. In her grief and desperation, Isabel believes that the little girl was sent to them from God as a blessing in disguise and convinces Tom to keep the child as their own. They name her Lucy. Their secret fools the people of Partaguese (for a time) but it eventually causes much pain and confusion to everyone involved, including innocent Lucy. Lies are told, loyalties are broken and heartaches ensue.
Never have I been presented with two sides of a story that I felt pulled equally in each direction.
However, as we continue to read, the real tragedy lies in the unhappiness of the poor child (which fails to be acknowledged by all the adults). This is Stedman’s debut novel and I don’t know much about her but what I do know is that she can write a real captivating story that will challenge you to wonder what is truly just and whose side you should be on. She offers a strong argument for both sides, which leaves you feeling as though you are swept out to sea but her conclusion will reign you in, like a beam from a lighthouse will guide you to land.
Surprisingly, I thought of a few different titles when reading this novel. First off, the way Stedman’s story was written and how it revolves around the ocean and someone being washed ashore, reminded me of Galore by Michael Crummey. It also made me think about Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House because of the whole notion that if you keep secrets, disaster is bound to strike in merciless ways. Then I thought about Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, for obvious reasons. In both books, the fate of the child in question is determined by two families (the biological and the adoptive) and in both instances, the child is a girl. Another novel that came to mind was Mary Curran Hackett’s Proof of Heaven. The question of God and how prayers are offered or deals are made between the desperate characters and their Saviour are a strong point in each tale. The last one I thought about briefly, was Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini. Yes, the time frame and place in Stedman’s book is completely different from Chiaverini’s novel but they both feature a war, which affects everyone in it and those on the side lines. In fact, mothers losing sons in battle was a shared theme.
What did you think of the story?
If you are a mother or someone who longs to have children, could you imagine what you would do if you were faced with a similar situation? It is a serious topic and next month I continue with a sad but also quirky tale, when I talk about Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.