I took my time reading this book as I was buddy-reading with the host of “Take Me to the Video Store” We read about five chapters per week as suggested by the Goodreads group. We tried to borrow some questions from the group for discussion and followed their plan. I know this book is widely-read, popular, well-loved, and has even been turned into a movie with Michael Fassbender, but yet again I am late to the party. This was my first time reading it, and I enjoyed it immensely.
This novel follows Tom, a soldier in World War I who has recently obtained a job off the coast of Australia as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island, quite some distance from the main shore. As he spends the first six months in complete silence, all alone, upon his first visit to shore he befriends a woman named Isabel. As they correspond via snail-mail (only when boats would go to and from the island) over time the two decide they love each other and get married. Isabel joins Tom on the island and the two live in romantic honeymoon bliss, taking care of the lighthouse and livestock. Isabel gets pregnant three times and loses the baby, each when she is further and further along. The devastation of miscarriage, inability to become a mother, and concentrated loneliness break Isabel’s spirit quite rapidly. One day a boat washes up on shore. In it they find the corpse of a man, and a living baby. After much discussion, Isabel convinces Tom to break the rules, bury the man, avoid marking this event in the lighthouse log, and to let her keep the baby. The plot takes a turn from there. We find out about the baby in the prologue, thus it is not a spoiler.
I enjoyed this book for several reasons. The first is the personal reason: how I read it. For the first time since high school I read a novel at a glacial pace. Five chapters per week is not fast, not a lot, and not how I’ve read since University started six years ago. To take it slow with a book, to think about the characters and allowing them to stay with me for eight weeks rather than one or two days was such a strange experience.
I can also see the appeal for readers (myself included). After so many books with intricate plots, exciting ‘effects,’ twists, layers upon layers of magic systems, military combat, and cliff hangers with plot twists upon plot twists it was so nice for a book to focus in on a simple setting with two main characters. I felt like time stood still and I enjoyed every minute at the lighthouse. Like Tom, I too felt like I was getting away from it all. Stedman invites you to listen to the wind and the waves, to experience the isolation and loneliness but in a way that is similar to a vacation rather than forced exile.
There are several themes explored in this novel that are worthy of discussion. The first is the effect of War on people (on an individual level and as a community). PTSD for soldiers (or Tom) is only the beginning. Isabel lost brothers, other people lost children. Reading about the characters in Isabel’s home town and how they dealt with the effects of war and loss of beloved family members opened my eyes to the varying levels of grief.
The second theme explored at large is that of motherhood. This novel follows what it means to be a mother from conception to child instruction. The horrors of miscarriage described in the early chapters, forcing Tom (a regular man who went to War) to look at the bloody mess that is pregnancy and miscarriage, particularly for Isabel who really wants a baby was a very interesting contrast. It was intriguing to see Tom become horrified at the sight and compare it to the battlefield. In addition, we see themes of nature vs. nurture, does one own a child because she gave birth or does one own one because she/he/they raised it?
This book had me asking “what is the right thing to do?” at almost every step of the way. Every moral conundrum in this novel is such a grey area, where the right thing to do is not clear and simultaneously you cannot blame any of the characters for their choices. Every action is justified, and somehow it’s not okay for everyone involved.
I loved this book, and I strongly recommend it, particularly if you are looking for something calmer. You won’t be able to forget this lighthouse.