2012, 345 p.
As it happened, I read this book with my bookgroup (AKA The Ladies Who Say Oooh) just as the movie was released. No doubt I’ll see the movie about two minutes before it closes, when it’s down to one session a day at Cinema Nova in a cinema with six seats. I’ll be late to review the film, just as I am late to review the book. By reading it in November 2016, everything that could be said about this book has already been said before.
And so you probably already know that it’s set in the 1920s on a lighthouse off the Western Australian coast. The time and setting is important. The 1920s in Australia, so geographically distant from the European battlefields, were hollowed out demographically and emotionally by the loss of men who didn’t come back or returned as wraiths of the men they were. Tom Sherbourne has returned apparently physically and emotionally intact, but when faced with questions of life, death, parenthood and morality, we realize that he has been moulded by his war experience. He craves the order and solitude of lighthouse life, and feels the moral burden of having survived when others didn’t. His wife Isabel, like 1920s women throughout Australia, rejoiced in Tom’s physicality and masculinity at a time when men were scarce, but could not grasp the enormity of the war experience and its existential ravages on her husband.
The setting in a lighthouse on an island is important too. Not only does the mechanics of the plot hang on the logistics of infrequent contact between the lighthouse and the mainland, but the emotional and ethical question at the heart of the book relies on isolation as well.
The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind. p. 120
The book is a Jodi-Picoultesque dilemma set in 1920s Australia, but it could in many ways be located in the country of any of the Commonwealth Allies – Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand. The dialogue, to me, had some infelicities (were the terms ‘kids’ and ‘cubbies’ in use in 1920s Australia?) but she captured the historical theme of return from the war well without labouring it, and the descriptions of landscape were carefully crafted. In the face of such happiness, you know from the start that things are not going to end well. It is this feeling of impending doom that keeps you turning the pages. I felt a little cheated by the ending, not so much in terms of plot, but from a feeling that it was rushed and the nuances unexplored.
Sourced from: C.A.E. library
My rating: 8/10
I’ve read this for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge