The story opens in 1926 but Tom Sherbourne actually met Isabel near the end of 1920 on the “long, thin jetty at Point Partageuse” where she was “feeding bread to a flock of seagulls. She was lauging as she threw each crust in a different direction and watched the birds squabble and screech, eager for a prize. ”
“It seemed years since Tom had heard a laugh that wasn’t tinged with a roughness, a bitterness….Only gradually did he notice she was pretty. And more gradually that she was probably beautiful.”
She offered him bread and he replied that he was not hungry.
“Not for you silly! To feed the seagulls.” And they had a contest to see which of them could get more birds to come to them. When the bread was gone, Tom asked her who had won.
“Oh, I forgot to judge.” The girl shrugged. “Let’s call it a draw.”
Tom wished her a good afternoon and the story was set in motion. Feel like a movie? Well, that is going to happen apparently in 2016 with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander already cast as Tom and Isabel. I highly recommend you read the book first given that books so often either complete movies or, most certainly, clarify their plot lines.
The setting is Australia’s southwest tip in a lighthouse on Janus Rock and a small town called Point Partageuse, named by French explorers. A map is provided at the beginning of the book and this is something I always appreciate.
Janus Rock lighthouse had been built in 1889 and held the graves of sailors who had foundered on the rocks off Point Partageuse. The lighthouse “sat solidly in the middle of the small island (about a square mile), the keeper’s cottage and outbuildings hunkered down beside the lighthouse, cowed from decades of lashing winds.”
Tom had served on the Western Front during the first world war and when he came home he applied to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. He had an honourable discharge and preference was given in the lighthouse service to ex-service men. He got a six months’ relief posting on the New South Wales coast and then a posting on Maatsuyker, a wild island off Tasmania.
Tom wasn’t physically wounded during the war but he had wounds nonetheless and he figured if he could get far enough away from people and from memory then time would heal.
Janus Rock was not a popular posting: it had a Grade One hardship rating which translated into a higher salary. The present keeper was being put on a six months’ medical leave and although a married man was preferred, Tom was sent out as temporary keeper.
On the way to the southeast shore and Partageuse Tom was part of an incident on board the S.S.Prometheus which speaks succinctly to his character. He sort of rescued a female passenger from the advances of a crew member who had been drinking and had entered her cabin. Tom removed the nuisance and tried to set the woman at ease.
“I’d say he’s not the full quid now.” The woman’s eyes asked a question.
“Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong won’t look so different anymore to some.” He assures the woman she has every right to have the man up on charges although Tom figures the man probably had enough troubles already. Tom has no difficulty seeing several sides of problems and this will effect the course of his life as the story progresses. It will actually change the course of his life and his primary relationships.
This story is a romance and a mystery, a philosophical conundrum, a source of information about lighthouse keepers and the lives they live particularly in an isolated Grade One hardship posting and a social commentary on life immediately following the first world war in small town Australia. The landscape is a strong character in the book and holds out considerable promise for a movie as well.
A great story which will have you asking: what would I have done in Isabel and Tom’s shoes?
Some quotes from the book:
Isabel’s mother to Isabel’s dad re the “propriety of Isabel’s sudden “stepping out” with Tom: “Life’s a short thing. She’s a sensible girl and she knows her own mind. Besides, there’s little enough chance these days of her finding a man with all his limbs attached.”
On the ocean in general: “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 beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.”
On the town of Partageuse: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember. Children can grow up having no knowledge of the indiscretion of their father in his youth, or of the illegitimate sibling who lives fifty miles away and bears another man’s name. History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent.”