This is the debut novel by M.L. Stedman, an Australian woman now living in London. It is a bittersweet tale that begins with just a handful of characters, then expands to an exploration of right and wrong in human existence. It is finely crafted and emotionally compelling.
Tom Sherbourne somehow survived four years of hell in the trenches of World War I. When he returns to western Australia, he naturally gravitates to the calm and simplicity of Lighthouse work. But somehow, he meets and falls in love with a young woman willing to share his choice. Sadly, Isabel suffers three miscarriages, and they have resigned themselves to childlessness. Then, one day, a rowboat drifts to the shore of their island, containing one dead man and one living baby girl. Isabel claims the girl for a daughter, and names her Lucy.
The story unfolds slowly and gently from the terrible lie that has been told. Many lives are tormented when the lie begins to die, and we return to the world of people, where love, the stars, and the sea, are not enough.
With its intense focus on the mysteries of the human heart in an isolated setting and a postwar moment of time, this tale may remind you a bit of David Guterson’s debut novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars.” But the Australian setting is much more distant for a north American reader, reminding us of the universals of human reality, especially the power of loving a child. Featuring powerful emotional scenes, realistic dialog, and characters with depth, this is one of the more memorable first novels of 2012, and well suited to book group reading.