lighthouse“A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below.”

It’s the second sentence of the novel and immediately caught me. How could it not? It’s a beautiful line, and I love how Ms. Stedman repurposed the word “snail”. She doesn’t disappoint with the rest of her imagery and phrases. Her descriptions capture the imagination and you feel not only as if you’re on Janus, but also as if you’re inside the persons of Tom and Isabel. Their joys and anguishes become your own.  I could write the whole review just giving you quotations that I’ve highlighted in the novel. . .but I’ll try not to.

From a technical point of view what I found incredible was the character of Tom–in the fact that I didn’t find him incredible. I read the book unaware that ML Stedman was a “Miss.” I am always impressed when an opposite gender writes such a believable character.  I can mimic my boyfriend’s behavior for a short time, even predict what he’s going to say or do sometimes, but to maintain that for the duration of the lifetime of a novel, not so much.  It’s not just in how the author describes the character or how the character talks.  It’s being able to think like that gender because we are wired differently. We consider different things. We prioritize in vastly different ways, and while eventually we may end up with the same thing as number one, we get there on such a variety of paths. Ms. Stedman created Tom and Isabel with such a perfection. I understood where Tom was coming from–I could see his thought process even if I didn’t like his path–and didn’t feel at all that it was “colored” in a feminine way.

Tom and Isabel suffer loss at the beginning of the book–three miscarriages. These are personal–and isolated on the island with no one around–and told in a heart wrenching way. Tom’s loss of how to help and Isabel’s ache of physical loss. But Stedman also deftly and beautifully describes how both struggle with their own feelings of failure. She doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but weaves the story expertly.

Then the miracle of Lucy, the baby who lands on the lighthouse island so soon after the third miscarriage that rules, black and white, are blurred.

“You could kill a bloke with rules. . . .could he deprive Isabel of this baby? If the child was alone in the world? Could it really be right to drag her away from a woman who adored her, to some lottery of Fate?”

What I also love about this novel is how Stedman revealed Tom’s past, his WWI involvement, and how that influences his present.

“He’d been on death’s books for so long, it seemed impossible that life was making an entry in his favor.”
“. . .to be beside her had made him feel cleaner somehow, refreshed. Yet the sensation leads him back into the darkness, back into the galleries of wounded flesh and twisted limbs. To make sense of it–that’s the challenge. To bear witness to death, without being broken by the weight of it.”
The details don’t seem gratuitous but are matter of fact. Manly, perhaps?

As it turns out, Lucy’s mother is alive and still searching for her almost five years later. I was struck by the impossible choice Tom is faced with. And the decision and fall-out he will live with.

“We live with the decisions we make, Bill. That’s what bravery is.”

I think it’s impossible to talk about this book without admitting that it is indeed a sad book. Each of the main characters grip my heart. . .Isabel, Tom, Hannah. I have faced difficult choices but never anything like these three faced. I was lost in what Stedman created. It was believable. Not that this situation may ever happen to anyone I personally know, but the excruciating need to make choices such as these and to know that lives are eternally affected.

“Like Russian dolls, these lives sit within him.”

I’ve read other sad books. But this one doesn’t actually leave me feeling sad. It ends the way it has to.

It is real.

It is beautiful.

And it illustrates perfectly what I think is the message.  A lighthouse can not  be it’s own light.  It doesn’t provide guidance for itself, but for others.  So, each of us need a lighthouse between oceans but in order for that to happen, we have to each BE a lighthouse.  What an awesome responsibility and privilege.  And Tom’s father points out to him filled with no easy decisions, but yet, the alternative is to be left in darkness.