After heroically serving his country for four difficult years of war, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia. He ends up as a lighthouse keeper and after several assignments in different lighthouses, he gets a permanent assignment as the keeper of the lighthouse at Janus Rock, an island nearly half a day’s journey from the mainland.
The rigors of war, where he has seen a lot and done a lot of things he did not want but had to do, have taken its toll on Tom. But he finds peace and comfort in the isolated island where he adheres to the never changing routine of maintaining the light and manning the lighthouse. His only contact with the outside world is by telegraph and through the supply boat that comes once a season. He gets to set foot on the mainland only during the shore leave which is granted once in two years.
Tom meets, falls in love and marries Isabel during one of his visits to the shore. After marriage, he brings Isabel to the island and begins to lead a happy life. But the happiness soon turns to depression, sadness, and desperation when Isabel has two miscarriages and one stillbirth. Isabel is devastated and depressed beyond words and Tom is unable to console her.
“Sometimes life turns out hard, Isabel. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.”
One day, soon after the death of the third child, Isabel hears the cries of a baby. The cries are from a boat that has washed up onshore. The boat has a two-month old baby girl and the body of a dead man. Isabel is delighted to get the baby and claims that it is God’s gift for the lost baby and wants to keep it and raise it as their own child. This puts Tom in a quandary—whether to do his duty as the lighthouse keeper and report the missing boat, dead man and living baby to the authorities or to hide the incident to keep Isabel happy, peaceful and normal. Finally, after a great deal of moral and ethical struggle, he decides to keep quiet about the incident for the sake of Isabel’s happiness and sanity. He buries the dead man on the island and sets the boat afloat so that it is washed away from the island.
Isabel names the baby Lucy and soon Lucy becomes the center of both their lives. Tom who initially rejected the idea of keeping the baby is won over by the charming Lucy. When Lucy is two years old Tom and Isabel returns to the mainland and there they hear the story of how Lucy ended up on Janus Rock. They also meet the grieving mother who still believes her baby is alive. Even though Isabel is unmoved by the sight and plight of the poor woman, Tom is unable to bear the sight of the poor lady whose life has been destroyed by his actions to keep his life happy. Tom decides to inform the grieving lady the truth and the rest of the story is the consequences of his actions and how it affects and changes so many lives so dramatically and drastically.
M. L. Stedman writes like a seasoned master even though it is her first novel. Her writing style is crisp, clear, and beautiful. The author clearly depicts the mental state of all the characters in such detail and clarity that the reader feel the mental agony and strain that each one of them undergoes. The fact that we don’t have any ill feeling towards Isabel even when she decides to keep the baby and makes Tom overlook his values and morals shows the power of the narrative. In the end we can come to the only conclusion—life is not fair and one person’s justice is another person’s tragedy and there is no absolute right or wrong as everything is relative.
This is an exceptionally well-written novel that will deeply move you and touch your soul. A must read.