This story, published in 2012, is a debut novel – I am impressed. It opens with “On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.” In this first sentence, life and death arrive together and we are immediately set on a path of intricately bound conflicts, in an ever rising swell between past and present, husband and wife, right and wrong, light and darkness – between ‘oceans’ indeed. Even the setting on Janus Rock, Janus being the two-faced God looking both forward and backwards, indicates the duality of all things.
Specifically, we have Tom Sherbourne, product of an emotionally scarred childhood and a survivor of WW1, trying to find some meaning and purpose to having fought and to still being alive. He is the light, the rock, honourable and steadfast, who finds other people baffling and disturbing. He finds ways to cope: “You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is speculation.” He just wants to forget the past, and keep his focus close. However, internal peace proves to be elusive, so he opts instead for a kind of external peace in the isolation of being a lighthouse keeper. He accepts an undesirable posting to the most remote lighthouse in the country, on Janus Rock, where he is to endure three year stints on the island, utterly alone for months at a time. The nearest landfall town is Partageuse, one hundred miles away. There he meets nineteen year old Isabel, his ‘Izzy’, a firecracker of a girl. Against all his expectations, she is the light in his darkness and they quickly marry and set about a simple, happy life on Janus Rock. Izzy wants children, lots of them, but after three miscarriages, the last of which is a perfectly formed little boy, Izzy’s light begins to fade and Tom is worried.
Thus, with the backstory under our belts, the preciousness of life in the face of such loss, we can believe the turn of events that starts the story – a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a tiny, crying infant girl, only a couple of months old. Izzy is a grieving woman who desperately wants a child … and here is a child, delivered as if from the hand of God.
And here too is the first shadow in the paradise of Tom and Izzy’s relationship. Izzy, immediately enraptured by the baby, is absolute in her conviction the child is theirs to keep. Thus we see how easily and well we deceive ourselves: “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, not the wind.”
Tom is uncertain, aware there is a wrongness in what seems so right, but he wants Izzy to be happy. From this point onwards, we are swept back and forth, tide-like, between right and wrong, past and present, individual need and love of the other. We are made to feel every nuance in the tricky ethical landscape these characters inhabit, and we are made to feel every swell of joy and trough of despair. It’s impossible not to see very one’s point of view and feel sympathetic to everyone, except perhaps, the nasty policeman.
Matters become infinitely more complicated as the lie insinuates itself into the fibre of Izzy’s family, and into the local community. Then, the child’s real mother enters the picture and what was an understandable lie that might be forgivable, becomes an ongoing cruelty, that Tom cannot support. He is torn between his personal Scylla and Charibdys – hurting Izzy and the child, Lucy, by doing the right and proper thing, or knowingly contributing to the terrible pain of others who have done nothing to deserve it. He searches for a way, seeking the advice of Ralph, who thinks he’s talking about the war; “… got me thinking about everything I’ve done wrong in my life, and how to put it right before I die’. He opened his mouth to go on, but an image of Isabel bathing their stillborn son silenced him, and he balked.” … “Jesus Christ I just want to do the right thing, Ralph! Tell me what the right fucking thing to do is! I – I just can’t stand this! I can’t do it any more!”
As Tom says, ”Can a right make good a wrong? Is there wrong in a greater good?’’
Which right is most right? Which wrong is most wrong? How do you protect those you love in an impossible situation like this, where, no matter what you do, someone innocent will suffer? Especially Lucy, the child wanted by everyone – who is her mother now? What is a mother, really?
Whilst this might all sound like heavy going, Stedman’s pacing and writing, the question what happens next, the stakes high, makes this a page turner. In the end, this is a redemption story; the dilemma and all it’s ramifications are played out, right up to the point of life and death. What a journey! The emotional lives of Tom, Izzy and all the other characters are as deep and strong, as vast, as wild as any ocean. The risk of drowning is always close and hearts do break.
Stedman has done her homework – the details of life in a lighthouse are convincing, life on an isolated island is brilliantly rendered, and the portrait of life in a remote Western Australian town in the 1920’s is so sharply drawn I can just see the movie. There are many other moral issues woven into the story; the matter of war; the abuse of children; the mob mentality and it’s horrible effects, life in harsh and hard conditions, the things we do to get by.
I read this in one short and one long sitting; I was moved by it – to tears, in fact.