Tom Sherbourne, a WWI veteran, returns to his homeland, Australia and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, an island off the southwest coast of Australia. Though Tom is able to take shore leave very sporadically, every couple of years, he goes through a whirlwind courtship and weds young Isabel Graysmark. The marital spark burned brightly but fate dealt Izzy a cruel blow, not once, not twice, but three times. Two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Somehow Izzy survived and Tom encouraged her in every possible way as they lived their isolated life on the island.
When a dinghy is washed ashore on the island, the couple’s lives are changed dramatically. Tom finds two bodies in the dinghy, an adult male, dead and an infant girl, miraculously alive.
The couple raise the child as if she is their own but within a couple of years, Tom and Izzy learn who the child’s biological mother and now the stage is set for a significant moral question: should the child be torn away from the loving step mother who is the only mother she has ever known and returned to her real mother ?
Izzy has no difficulty with the question, Lucy is her daughter! Tom, whose moral compass has been honed by his brutal war experience, is polarized by the dilemma which he faces: return the child to its rightful mother and crush his wife’s heart or keep the child and reject that she belongs with her real mother.
The moral question is a universally popular theme used by many authors and plotted into many movies. Ben Affleck’s directorial debut film, Gone Baby Gone poses a very similar dilemma. Should a child now living with good step parents in a loving home be prevented from being returned to her rightful mother by the court system. The biological mother is portrayed as a drug using, drug dealing addict who seems to care little about her own daughter’s welfare though she claims love for the child and that she should be returned to her legitimate mother. Again, the husband is the one caught on the horns of the moral dilemma. The movie’s ending is less palpable than the one of the book.
Polished writing throughout
M.L. Stedman’s debut novel is based on the author’s native Australia, years of working as a lawyer in London, England and exhaustive research at the British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom. Stedman scratched her writing itch by finding a writing tutor who helped her develop her budding career as a writer.
Stedman’s research went beyond the library stacks. She actually visited lighthouses and researched logbooks and correspondence of lightkeepers of the era in which her story is set.
Surprisingly dynamic in breadth
One would think setting a story with just two people on a isolated island might be very limiting as to scope of material, but Stedman keeps her plot developing with descriptions about the imaginary island and the ever deeper love the couple has for their step daughter. It becames an endearing and warming facet of the book as the step parents raise their daughter as if their island seems actually very unlimited in wonder and beauty even though it is isolated from society and people of the mainland.
Licensed for manipulation
Stedman manipulates her readers well. The real mother, Hannah is made less attractive for the return of the daughter because of her marriage to an Austrian, who all the townspeople see as being one of the Teutonic enemy. Even Hannah’s wealthy father who wishes his daughter to wed, opposes and even disowns Hannah for years when she chose who she did. Her husband is far from a German villain as pictured by the bigoted minds of the town and is portrayed as a gentle caring sort even when tested by taunting and bullying by the villagers.
After one harrowing incident of violent assault, Hannah’s husband likely sought refuge with his infant daughter in a dinghy in the town’s harbor. Carried out to see by the tides, we never learn how he died and yet, the infant survived.
Tension maintained and developed
The suspense and tension are developed well by the author when the true identity of the child is uncovered and Tom Sherbourne is jailed as a kidnapper. As the impending trial develops the tension, the reader is constantly reminded of the moral question as to who should be the mother of the child.
One cannot help but sympathize with Izzy, the loving step mother who has lost three babies before fate gave her another. She devotes her heart and soul to her stepdaughter but again the moral question arises. Hannah is the real mother. She too is portrayed as a caring and loving woman but begins to have doubts whether restoring her daughter to her real mother is possible or should be done. Again, the author opens the door to new possibilities with manipulated rationalization.
The final word…
This book as polished and well written. The story is plausible and believable with characters who are charismatic and personable and it unfolds in a way that a reader wants to hear more, read more. The story becomes captivating pulling the reader along more deeply into the plot, and making the characters more colourful and attractive page after page.
On the surface, the story seems very simple and straightforward: couple finds lost infant and raises the child for a number of years as if she is their own; the real mother’s identity is discovered; should the child be returned to her true mother or left with the only mother she has ever known, one who has loved her and cared for her as if she were her very own flesh and blood.
You will be torn yourself with the difficult dilemma. But you will be assured of one thing: this book an excellent book.