I begin reading with envy as M.L.Stedman’s playful yet adept metaphors slip off sentences, like droplets off the oars of a dinghy, each one plunging back into the ocean to collect another stream from which to compose those few extra words that create more than just mere description, revealing an image and inviting us deeper into the world she paints with words, an island hundreds of miles from civilisation, where only the two oceans, a grand light, the twinkling stars and the tall, elegant, imposing bearer of that light keep a young, newly married couple company.
There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only the gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.
It is the early years after the first world war and many families have been affected by the loss of their sons, Tom survived the war but carries the guilt of a survivor who has seen too much and wishes they could have done more. Isabel’s family is no stranger to the grief of losing not one but two sons, within days of each other, never quite giving up the illusion of hope that maybe it was all an error and one of them will return.
Tom accepts a job on Janus Rock, a lighthouse many miles out to sea, with visits to the mainland years apart, the island, the sea and that reassuring steadfast light his sole companions. Until Isobel joins him in wedlock and on the island will encounter her own form of grief, yearning for the child that never quite makes it into life.
After the last stillborn child, a dingy washes ashore with the body of a young man and a baby wrapped in a bundle, miraculously still alive. Convincing her husband to delay the inevitable moment, the two fall into a conspiracy of their own making, one that lifts Isabel’s spirit while crushing Tom’s peace of mind.
When he wakes sometimes from dark dreams of broken candles, and compasses without bearings, he pushes the unease down, lets the daylight contradict it. And isolation lulls him with the music of the lie.
At times uncomfortable reading, Stedman keeps you guessing and wanting to turn the pages, as the behaviours of the female characters are as unpredictable as the currents of the ocean herself. Tom, like the lighthouse itself is resolute, yet vulnerable to the consequences of his steadfast loyalty.
The choice of a third person narrative perspective has the effect of keeping the reader at a certain emotional distance and prevented me from being drawn into empathising with the characters, never being truly brought deep into their minds to see things from their perspective, thus we remain at a safe distance ourselves, just like those ships out at sea.
I did wonder why the author hadn’t taken that leap and told the story from the perspective of one of the central characters, but at the same time, sense the hesitation to go there. In all, a magnificent debut and thought-provoking novel, with many fabulous evocations of the turmoil of the sea and humanity.