Adapted from Goodreads: After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. Tom and Isabel’s decision on how to handle the situation has devastating consequences.
☺ ☺ ☺ ☺
This is a quiet novel that nevertheless contemplates some grand schemes: love, loss, sacrifice, forgiveness, and hope. I was moved by the story, the characters, and the language.
The book is beautifully written. There were many times where I stopped reading to savor the language and the pictures it evoked in my mind. But at the same time, I realized that I had just read something very important to the story.
Here is an example:
“The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm—the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, no the wind.”
When I first read this part, I found myself lulled into a picture of peace and predictability. But almost instantly, I started to wonder what consequence it might have if I could do anything I wanted because there was no one around to tell me to do otherwise. It is an innocent question, but the answer could be quite momentous.
The main character in this book is Tom, who suffers from survivor’s guilt and PTSD. He needs the isolation and predictability of life on Janus Rock, tending to the lighthouse with its rigid rules and meticulous attention to detail. He tries hard to put his experiences of the war behind him. We don’t find out exactly what happened, but there are enough hints to not let us forget how much they have shaped him. I found his struggle to reconcile all the different views of “doing the right thing” very convincing.
“From the gallery, the horizon stretches forty miles. It seems improbably to Tom that such endless space could exist in the same lifetime as the ground that was fought over a foot at a time only a handful of years ago….”
I didn’t like his wife Isabel quite as much, probably because I didn’t agree with her behavior all the time. But at the same time, I could understand her actions and couldn’t quite fault her for them. After two miscarriages and a heartbreaking stillbirth, she looks at the baby in the boat as a “gift from God.” As a mother, I had no problem relating to her and her reasoning.
There are a number of other compelling characters, most of whom grapple with the loss of someone they have loved and the consequences that has had on their lives. I found them all to be well developed so that I could easily relate to them. Thankfully, there is also a thread of hope that prevents the book from becoming too bleak.
“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
About two thirds in, I really wondered how the author could possibly resolve the seemingly hopeless situation that had been created. The ending surprised me, but it made sense. It really drove home the point that a decision is never made in a vacuum and that even if it is made with best intentions, it can have unintended consequences. This book will stay with me for a long time.