My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was recommended to me by a friend, an avid reader who thought that since I lived on a Canadian lightstation, a new Australian book set on a station there would be of interest. Also, that it was a very, very good read. Well, what a pair of understatements.
This is a stunning first novel set in post-World War I Western Australia, well south of Perth. The Janus Rock Lightstation is strategically located between the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean, a place where the warm and cold currents collide and ships traversing the shipping lanes recognize its five second flash as entering or leaving the realm of the Australian continent.Urgent messages to and from the lightstation and the ships are infrequent but Morse code is used by all parties. Part of the lightkeeper's duties are to note the names of the ships passing by, time and date, and to log all such information.
Stedman's descriptions of lighthouse duties, of the island, the tower itself and the house provided, the supply boat which stopped by every three months and the mental strain suffered by a widowed lightkeeper are apt and accurate. She writes beautifully.
To this well-named island, comes battle-scarred Tom Sherbourne, a relief keeper and war hero, looking for a place to be still and solid.
At the kitchen window, the flame of the oil lamp wavered occasionally. The wind continued its ancient vendetta against the windows, accompanied by the liquid thunder of waves. Tom tingled at the knowledge that he was the only one to hear any of it: the only living man for the better part of a hundred miles in any direction. He thought of the gulls nestled into their wiry homes on the cliffs, the fish hovering stilly in the safety of the reefs, protected by the icy water. Every creature needed its place of refuge.
And to this sad, good man's life while on shore leave comes Isabel, a cheerful, pretty young woman who amazes him with her wit and her audacity, especially so because she has set her sights on him, of all people. Tom is advised by the supply boat's captain never to underestimate the importance of the right wife on the Lights, advice as sound in the early 1900's as it is in this century.
Then to their idyllic and adventurous island life comes more grief, in the form of two miscarriages and a stillborn child, and just the two of them out there alone, coping with the physical and emotional reality.
But then, then a rowboat adrift lands on one of their island beaches, a boat with a dead man and a very much alive baby girl.
What to do? By then the reader is mesmerized,watching Tom and Isabel succumb to their choices, making decisions that will undo them both but the skill with which the author sets the pacing of the novel, the slow unspooling of the days and the shocking jolts of tension, is guaranteed to undo the reader-- unless the reader has a heart of stone.
I'd like to add that the cover is lovely and the endpapers are simply wonderful-- early lighthouse logbook pages with graceful, copperplate penmanship, noting the wind direction and force, the barometric pressure and temperature, and remarks as to passing ships and special task performed.
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