I picked this book up in the library thinking my mum might like to read it, but in fact she hasn’t had the chance yet because I’ve been hogging it.
It was first published in 2012, the debut novel of an Australian writer who now lives in London. Recognising its cinematic appeal, Stephen Spielberg’s Dreamworks company snapped up the rights in the same year and have already made it into a film, due for release this September.
The story is set in Australia, just after the First World War, and centres round the life of ex-soldier, Tom Sherbourne. Unlike many of his friends and colleagues he has come home in one piece, and takes up the opportunity offered to ex-servicemen to train as a lighthouse keeper.
Following his training, he is given charge of the remote Janus lighthouse, off the southwest of Australia. His departure point from the mainland is the small town of Partageuse, where he spends a few days before being shipped out to Janus. During that time he meets Isabel Graysmark, a young woman born and brought up in Partageuse. After his departure to Janus, they correspond by occasional letter via the supply boat and end up getting married, with Isabel joining him at the lighthouse.
They’re very happy together but dearly want children. After suffering a series of distressing miscarriages, Isabel feels her prayers have been answered when a small rowing boat washes up on the shore containing a tiny baby girl and a dead man. Tom is keen to send a signal to the mainland straight away, as per lighthouse regulations, but Isabel quickly forms a strong bond with the baby, leaving Tom with a dilemma. They concoct a story about the circumstances, suggesting that since the baby is wrapped in a woman’s cardigan but there’s no woman in the boat, the baby’s mother must have gone overboard, leaving her cardigan behind. The dead man is presumably the father, and so the baby has become an orphan, in need of love and care.
Tom is not entirely happy, in fact he’s deeply troubled, about not immediately alerting the authorities, but he gives in to Isabel’s pleas to leave contacting anyone at least until the next day. By the following day, however, Isabel is no keener to let go of the baby than she was before and Tom’s dilemma grows.
The front cover of the book states: “This is a story about right and wrong and how sometimes they look the same”, and the theme of right and wrong is what makes this book particularly interesting. Throughout the novel questions are raised about decisions taken by the main characters and, as in real life, it’s not always clear which decision is the right one. A decision that’s right for one person could be wrong for someone else, and the difficulty is in finding a solution that’s best for those with the most to lose or gain by it.
At the beginning of the book I was fairly sure how I felt about Tom’s decision, but thanks to M L Stedman’s skilful storytelling I became less certain about subsequent issues of right and wrong as the book went on. It wasn’t until near the very end of the book that I appreciated the New York Times quote,“A moving tale…prepare to weep”. The last few pages did indeed make me cry. If the film keeps the same ending as the book, I’d advise anyone going to see the movie to take a good stock of tissues with them.