Tom Sherbourne, the multi-layered protagonist of M.L. Stedman’s shimmering novel, is an Australian veteran of the Great War who comes home and becomes a lighthouse keeper. Janus Rock is an imaginary island lying west of Australia’s western coast, where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet. Tom gets shore leave every six months, and a supply boat visits every three. Tom becomes close to the boatmen, his only human contact. On shore, Tom has met and befriended a local girl Isabel Graysmark, who writes to him. They marry on one of his shore leaves, and settle down happily together on Janus.
It takes a special personality to brave the isolation and rough weather, and Isabel appears to be tough and what we might now call inner-directed. The Sherbournes have many happy months together, but eventually life takes a toll: Isabel suffers three miscarriages alone with Tom out on the rock. The first sign that something is deeply amiss is her refusal to allow Tom to send a distress signal. The second is that she refuses to head back on the supply ship to see a doctor on land.
Janus Rock is so isolated that the rest of the world doesn’t really matter. So when a miracle happens, and a rowboat with a dead man and a live baby drifts on to Janus Rock, perhaps it’s not such a surprise when Isabel and Tom do nothing. Nothing except care for the baby as their own, name her, nurture her, and show her off to Isabel’s parents and the townspeople. But Isabel’s hometown is a small one, and someone lost a baby of about the same age. Unraveling the strands – who is lying, what are everyone’s best interests – makes up the rest of this lovely, absorbing story.
The book is set in the 1920s, so DNA testing is not an option. The law relies on circumstantial evidence and a substantial reward, and eventually the deception comes undone. The novel describes the different temperaments of the characters; each individual responds idiosyncratically to life’s difficulties. All of the central characters have suffered, through no fault of their own. All have behaved well in extremely difficult circumstances, and all, at a different point, have behaved badly. What account should be taken of someone’s motivations? What mitigating effect might past suffering have to explain the unexplainable? Why should one bad action wipe out a lifetime of good ones? Stedman explores these themes as her characters move through the slowly-turning coils of Western Australia’s justice system.
Stedman resolves it all in a deeply satisfying way that includes an acknowledgment that lives contain many facets. Read this book for its beautiful descriptions of life on the the edge of the world, and its fascinating and deeply compelling portrayal of human complexity. Let us know what you think in the comments.
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