When I picked this book up on my recent trip to the library, my initial attraction to it was the cover picture of the solid lighthouse against a backdrop of stars. And I did what anyone does when they’re browsing library books—I read the flap cover, skimmed a few pages, and then, liking what I saw, I tucked it under my arm and continued browsing.
So here’s what I liked. I liked the premise of the story, which is about a man named Tom who returns from WWI to his native Australia and discovers that he needs silence more than anything to help him recover from his experiences, which have left him nervous and questioning his purpose in life. He becomes a lighthouse keeper, first as someone who fills in for regular keepers who need a break from their lonely existence, and then finally as the permanent caretaker for Janus Rock Lighthouse, a bleak place where he finds comfort and healing in the quiet routine of caring for the light. Eventually, he brings his young wife Isabel to live with him there, where they suffer a string of disappointments in their efforts to have a child.
So far, so good. I liked how Stedman told Tom and Isabel’s story in a series of flashbacks, rocking like a boat on the waves between the past and the present. I also liked the prose—it also rolled like waves, lapping quietly at me, filled with small details without overdoing it. I liked Tom’s quiet perseverance, the fact that he was able to find a sense of peace and calm through the rituals of tending the light and filling out the log book. I liked Isabel’s boisterous personality, but I also began to feel like nothing good was going to come of cooping up such a lively young woman in such a remote area.
So why didn’t I finish this book?
Because I didn’t. I got about halfway through it and just put it aside, thinking “this is so not my thing”. But you know, it actually IS my kind of thing. I like books set after WWI. I like compelling characters, prose that gives me a vivid image of the place they live, a setting that is someplace I’ve never physically been.
I wasn’t going to write up a review because I didn’t finish it, either, and then I thought, well, no, I should write a review because I did have a strong reaction to this book, even though I could not bring myself to finish it. Talking about why I didn’t finish a book is legitimate.
So here’s why, after I thought about it, I realized I couldn’t finish what is, on the face of it, a well-written book:
1. I began to find it depressing. The trapped feeling, the sameness of the days, all of Isabel’s miscarriages—it all started to weigh down on me. I don’t normally mind depressing books (those who know me well, for example, know that one of my all time favorite books is, of all things, Moby-Dick, so no, depressing normally isn’t an issue…), but this one. Well. I was afraid she’d drown herself in the ocean. Hell, I was afraid I’d drive the ten miles I live from the ocean and drown myself in the ocean.
2. Because they find a dead body and live baby in a boat. The dead body didn’t bother me all that much, but the live baby sure did. It felt manipulative to me, and I don’t like being manipulated. I knew what was coming. She’d want to keep the baby. It was going to be a “miracle” and a “sign from God” and all that stuff. And I wasn’t going there, no I was not.
So I put it aside. I don’t want to come out and say “don’t read this book” because you may in fact like this book very much. My husband did, and it’s most definitely not the kind of thing he usually reads. It has all the hallmarks of a really awesome read: it’s well-written, the characters are well-done. It is, in many ways, a beautiful book to read—the descriptions of Janus Rock are marvelous, the prose is light and easy, quiet and almost etheral. It’s a compelling story.
But I just couldn’t finish it.