This first novel by a wonderfully talented writer brings joy and anguish to her characters. I don’t want to give away the plot, which takes place on an imaginary island called Janus off the coast of Western Australia. Tom Sherbourne, a veteran of combat in World War I and survivor of a troubled childhood, is the main character. Sherbourne is a likable man, someone we want the very best for. He has signed on as a lighthouse keeper, a solitary, demanding job with little time off, unpredictable weather challenges, and months between supply boats.
A humorous, adventurous and affectionate young wife transforms his life, but the two soon become enmeshed in a situation requiring painful moral choices, humiliation and potential loss.
Author Stedman, who had publishers bidding against each other for her book, depicts the landscape of Janus — its trees, flowers, shoreline and unique animal life — so that we feel some of the awe that her characters feel as they discover it.
It’s curious that Stedman, who so smoothly draws us into the dilemma her characters face, chooses to reveal almost nothing about herself. In one interview she defended that by saying that her personal life sheds no information on her novel. Still, we’d enjoy knowing a little more than the single sentence on the book jacket telling us that she grew up in Western Australia and now lives in London.
She is expert at describing the workings of a lighthouse, its equipment and what tending one means to the people who choose this life, which offers little social interaction with others. Ralph and Bluey, who bring the supply boat, are among the handful of others they interact with. The onshore town of Partageuse has other well-drawn characters who play essential parts in the drama. The grievous moral choices facing the characters tempt us to ponder what decisions we might make. This thoroughly engrossing novel draws the reader in because we care about the fascinating characters and hope for a happy outcome. A wonderful read, hard to put down, and one that lingers after you finish it.