World War I has done its work on these characters. Tom Sherbourne has survived the war, but the mental and emotional scars remain; likewise, his young wife, Isabel, lost two brothers to the war. Now the two of them are set up on the tiny island of Janus (symbolism!) to keep the lighthouse there. But when a rowboat washes ashore containing a young baby and a dead man, the ripple effects of this simple event will be tremendous and far-reaching. Is the baby a gift from God, sent to solace Isabel in the pain of her three miscarriages? Or is all of this just a quirk of malicious fate, finally catching up to Tom & Izzy for the wrong they’ve done in their lives? Or is it all ultimately meaningless? As this book spreads out to really encompass a surprisingly large cast of characters, it manages to imbue them all with real life. There’s not a character here that doesn’t feel real and sympathetic. As the situations become more and more bleak as the book goes on, this story becomes ever more emotionally wrenching. The plot has many twists and turns, the characters are all wonderfully deep and layered and Stedman’s writing (this is, amazingly, her debut novel) is luminous, well-crafted, but never precious. It’s ultimately a book about the impossibility of right decisions in a world shattered by the events of the war; it seems every character in this book has, to some degree or other, been unhinged by the events of the war. Personal tragedies pile upon personal tragedies; a single tragedy is sufficient to unhinge the mind far enough to make poor decisions which lead to more tragedies. It’s a vicious cycle and the book is often emotionally brutal, like taking a gut punch. It’s a beautiful, engaging, powerful novel. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – gripping story of lighthouse keepers taking in a mysterious baby is emotionally wrenching, constantly surprising, beautifully characterized and wonderfully written. 4 stars.