I’ve read this book in a bizarre pattern – read the first 50 pages, got distracted and put the book away, decided to start over, re-read the same 50 pages, got distracted again for a shorter period, picked up the book where I left it, then finished the whole thing in a day while staying at home with a cold. It started off in an intriguing enough fashion, but at one point it becomes such an emotional rollercoaster it was simply impossible to put down. It’s not without faults, but it’s a powerful read about love, family and good people making bad decisions.
The book opens in 1926 on Janus Rock, a small remote island off Western Australia, where a young couple, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, live a quiet, isolated life. Tom is a lighthouse keeper, a decent if rather closed-off man who’s haunted by his experience in World War I, and Isabel is a local girl he marries. One day they make a startling discovery when a boat washes ashore, carrying a dead body of a man and a very much alive baby girl. For a variety of personal reasons, a decision is made by the couple not to alert the authorities back on the mainland, and raise the child as their own. While Isabel is all lost in maternal bliss and has no qualms about the deception, Tom can’t shake off the uneasiness and is tormented by the dreadful premonitions even as they live happily with little Lucy, cocooned from the rest of the world. That is, until the day they learn their daughter’s real story and the terrible consequences of their decision.
From this point on, the tension becomes almost unbearable as the story marches towards the inevitable explosion which will tear the characters’ lives apart in a heartwrenching manner. I’ve read too many books by now not to recognise the important clues when I see them, so some of the book’s developments didn’t come as a surprise, but they weren’t less gripping for it. The novel does a great job making you sympathise with the characters’ morally ambiguous decisions, and muddling up the issue of right and wrong and which character deserves the most compassion. It also conjures up a fantastic atmosphere of a provincial Australian town that’s been devastated by the losses from the war, and the tranquil, almost otherworldly isolation of life on Janus Rock where your perspective on the outside world can get warped indeed.
Both Tom and Isabel, their flaws, good qualities and the nuances of their relationship are believable and finely drawn. There’s a crucial character who enters the story at one point who unfortunately feels thinner in comparison, with a backstory that is tragic but too sketchy and simplistic to be truly moving. Also, the book gets maybe a tad too melodramatic by the end; I’ve nothing against having my emotional strings pulled if it’s done well, but I felt like, ok book maybe you’re trying too hard now. Overall though, there’s a good reason why I gulped it down – it’s an engrossing and deeply felt tale.