When a humble Australian debut author’s manuscript becomes the centre of a bidding war between nine international houses, you know there’s probably something special about the novel.
Tom and Isabel have made their home on Janus Rock, and island just off the coast of Western Australia. Tom is employed to look after the lighthouse on the island, and Isabel is happy to follow him to the ends of the earth. It is here that, one day, a boat washes ashore, complete with dead man and screaming baby. The decision the couple then make is one that will have far reaching consequences, and force each and every person in the town to question their own sense of right and wrong.
Morally ambiguous tales always make me happy – I find anything with a black and white morality far too preachy and silly for my own tastes. So it’s refreshing a strong debut create such an unsettling tale of family, and perhaps above all, motherhood. Tom and Isabel’s (Izz) whirlwind romance is dealt with quickly and carefully, allowing Steadman to set up the moral dilemma at the centre of this novel from the point of view of our protagonists. It is heartbreaking to see this young couple repeatedly lose children, through absolutely no fault of their own. Medicinal science being what it was in 1929, combined with their isolated living conditions, makes it almost impossible for the to do anything other than sit back helplessly as Isabel miscarries two children. And it is the night after one of these that the baby arrives.
A young grieving couple stumble upon a baby needing help – it’s a match made in heaven. Steadman is a master of making bad decisions seen like a good idea. Tom and Izz do, on the face of it, commit a crime. They kidnap a baby, and refuse to return it to its rightful family. But Tom and Izz are not bad people, not even a little bit. So instead of a novel about a crime, it becomes a novel about what good people do when they are not thinking straight. Tom is more cautious about keeping the baby than Isabel, but in his desperation to make her happy, he eventually goes along with the plan. None of this every seems forced – there is a natural and logical progression of events, which makes for easy reading.
The discovery of this deception comes a lot sooner than one would perhaps expect, and allows Steadman to use the third act to explore more fully the consequences this action has on all those involved. What is particularly good about this final act is that the narrative perspective shifts, and we are allowed glimpses into the life of Lucy’s biological mother, a woman torn apart by the loss of her daughter. and for her, the old adage is true – a missing person is more devastating than a deceased one. She cannot have closure until she sees definite proof that her husband and daughter are actually dead. Until then, there is always the slim possibility that somehow, they have survived.
It brings into play questions of nature and nurture, the truth behind things like adoption, and whether one’s biological parents are the ones best placed to raise you. Tom and Izz are certainly, on paper, the better option of the two faced by Lucy/Grace. Their stable marriage, their steady income, their clear love for this little girl are no match for her biological mother (whose name escapes me at this moment), who has lost her husband to the rampant racism of Australia, has essentially been driven mad by grief, and has not had the chance to bond with her daughter in any meaningful way. And yet, if we are to believe the religious right, she will still make a better parent to this girl, by simple virtue of the fact that she gave birth to her. I thought I knew which side I would be on, but it is a testament to Steadman that I was constantly changing my allegiances almost every chapter.
The best adage by which I can sum up this novel? “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” There are always – at least – two sides to every story. Steadman’s gift as a novelist is to provide us with shifting points of view on one incident that has life long repercussions on a whole town of people, made more devastating by the fact that no one wins. There is a note of redemption in the tail, bu that’s as much as you get. It’s not quite at The Slap level of mastery of questionable morality, but it’s pretty close.