For right or wrong: The Light Between Oceans

I thought I’d better hurry up and write my review of this novel, before everything that can be said, has been said. It would seem that everyone is talking about The Light Between Oceans – it’s swept through blogs, book clubs and TV shows, as some books are wont to do.

M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, with a moral conundrum such as it has at its heart, was always going to be popular.

“1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife, Isabel, live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world.

Then one  April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant – and the path of the couple’s lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.

Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they made that day – as the baby’s real story unfolds…”

In short, this novel is full of many types of heartbreak, all of the particular brand that are felt sharply by those readers who are partners and parents. The thought of the loss of a child sends shivers down my spine, a shared worst-nightmare for many of us, and as such, parts of this novel were very unsettling.

Perhaps fortunately, The Light Between Oceans has more to offer than just the central moral dilemma. It paints a haunting picture of lighthouse life, the tyrannies and attractions of isolation and an affecting sense of the ocean expanse surrounding our main characters, Tom, Isabel and Lucy.

I found it a fascinating capture of the mind of a returned soldier:

“The cruellest joke was on the fellows everyone called ‘lucky’ because they got to come back at all: back to the kids spruced up for the welcome home, to the dog with a ribbon tied to his collar so he could join in the fun. The dog was usually the first to spot that something was up. Not just that the bloke was missing an eye or a leg; more that he was missing generally – still missing in action, though his body had never been lost sight of….Something missing.”

Tom’s ‘burden of guilt’ was ever present; why had he survived service while so many others did not? How could he have let his family fall apart, his mother disappear? How could he take Isabel into his Janus Rock isolation? And of course, there was Lucy…

Interestingly, at the same time as wishing that Tom would stop being so hard on himself, I found myself staggered by Isabel’s apparent lack of guilt. She was so able to reconcile her ‘decision’ with her own logic, her own version of events, that it was almost horrible.  Throughout the novel, her grief sadly clearly leads to her undoing.

This is Stedman’s first novel, and for that she should be congratulated. Critic’s views of her writing have been a little mixed, but to me she’s guilty of nothing much more than a few clunky pieces of dialogues from time to time. Apart from this, her storytelling is compelling and her picture of 1920s Western Australia is endearing.

I feel a little like I’ve read around Australia this last twelve months, and I’m pleased to have added this to my literary travels.

Highly recommended.

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