N.R. Walker’s Galaxies and Oceans is a gently moving May/December romance between two damaged, lonely people who have good reason to be wary of falling in love. It’s one of those books where, honestly, not very much happens apart from a couple of emotionally bruised people finding and falling for each other, but it’s so beautifully done, the chemistry between them so compelling that I was engrossed in the story from start to finish and blew through the book in just a couple of sittings.
I chose it for this month’s prompt because it’s set at the other end of the world – to me, anyway – on Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia, and actually, it fits the prompt twice over. Not only is the story set in a remote and unusual location, one of the leads is a lighthouse keeper, and although he doesn’t live IN the lighthouse (his house is just next door), several key scenes take place there and it plays a significant role in the story.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ethan Hosking has been in a relationship with his boyfriend Anton – Canberra’s only openly gay politican – for four years. For the last two of those, Ethan has been subjected to violence and abuse on a regular basis, but he has no family or friends to turn to, no way to escape Anton’s controlling behaviour. When the book begins, they’ve just arrived at the remote cabin Anton takes Ethan to each time he’s beaten him up – so nobody will see the damage – and then Anton just leaves him there while he goes back to the city. Two days later, however, a massive bush fire laying waste to the national parks west of Canberra provides Ethan with a stark choice – stay where he is and end his misery that way… or make a run for it, make Anton believe he died in the fire and make a new life for himself somewhere far, far away.
Hadley Cove is a small town – population sixty-three – on the southwest tip of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and Patrick Carney has been the lighthouse keeper there for the past six years. Since the death of his lover Scott four years before, he’s lived a solitary life with just his cat and the ocean for company, occasionally venturing out to watch the penguins or the seals. Like everyone else in Hadley, he can’t fail to register the arrival of a stranger, a young man who is staying at the run-down caravan park and looking for work. Noticing the lonely figure clad only in jeans and a hoodie (neither warm enough to withstand the wind and the cold) staring out to sea, Patrick approaches him and strikes up a conversation – and immediately recognises the deep pain in his eyes. They part soon after – Patrick realising he doesn’t know the other man’s name – and later that day, he heads out to the caravan park to see if he can talk the owner into giving the newcomer some work. But it appears that’s already been taken care of; Patrick arrives to find him already hard at work and learns his name is Aubrey Hobbs.
The romance between Patrick and Aubrey (Ethan adopted his beloved grandfather’s name when he reinvented himself) is a gorgeous slow-burn as they take baby-steps towards healing and love. Patrick never thought or wanted to find love again – and feels guilty at the prospect – but something about Aubrey draws him in; it’s very clear the younger man has had a tough time of it, but Patrick never pushes for information Aubrey isn’t ready or willing to give. And even though he can’t tell Patrick the whole truth – he wants to, but worries about dragging Patrick into a legal minefield – Aubrey is as honest as possible and very real when he talks about his life, his fears and his passion for astronomy. Their connection is made quickly, but trust and deeper feelings are allowed plenty of time to develop, through shared meals (Patrick is an excellent cook!), visits to the ocean to watch the penguins come ashore or see the seal colony, picnics and stargazing (the one thing Aubrey took with him when he walked away from his old life was his grandfather’s telescope) at the top of the lighthouse.
The small secondary cast adds depth to the story and the setting is brought so vividly to life – the stormy skies, the biting wind, the fierceness and unpredictability of the ocean – that you can feel and see it all. The writing is smooth and assured and lyrical, and I particularly liked the way Scott is present in the story, as someone who will always be important to Patrick and would want him to be happy; Patrick’s imaginary conversations with him are funny and poignant, but he never overwhelms the story and encourages Patrick to live his life. I loved that Patrick, the lighthouse keeper, becomes the beacon who guides Aubrey to safety, and the idea of Aubrey being led to Patrick by the stars is one of the most romantic things I’ve read recently; lost in the bush after the fire, he remembers his grandfather’s words about the Southern Cross – “the tail points south, always”.
“The Southern Cross is what brought me here. The constellation. I followed it, here, to this island. To you.”
My quibbles with the story are small ones. The ending feels a bit rushed, and maybe Patrick holds on to his guilt over moving on for a tad too long, but those are the only things that didn’t quite work for me.
Heartfelt, sensual , touching and uplifting, Galaxies and Oceans is a gloriously romantic character-driven story about overcoming adversity and finding home.
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