The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
Published: 31 July 2012 by Scribner
Pages: 343 (hardcover)
Genre/s: Historical Fiction
After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.
M. L. Stedman’s mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel’s decision to keep this “gift from God.” And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.
Although The Light Between Oceans was the Goodreads Choice Awards Historical Fiction winner in 2012, I hadn't actually heard of this book until it came up as a Group Read in one of my Goodreads groups. This may show just how little attention I've paid to adult historical fiction over the past couple of years, as usually this kind of book would have immediately been on my radar.
Tom meets Isabel whilst on a temporary posting to Janus, in Western Australia and they have a whirlwind 1920's romance, quickly ending up living permanently on Janus, where they only return to the mainland very rarely. Living in isolation is something that obviously appeals greatly to Tom, who is trying to escape the horrors of World War I, and Isabel seemingly embraces the isolated beauty of Janus. I didn't quite understand why Isabel was so attracted to Tom, not that he isn't an intriguing character, but it didn't seem to really fit with her outgoing personality, especially living so far from everyone.
The arrival of the unknown baby suddenly pitches their morality into the ocean and they find themselves immediately in conflict - Isabel believes the baby was meant to find them, and Tom is eaten up by the guilt that the child is missing from another family. There are interesting moral debates here, and my opinion swung regularly back and forth between Tom and Isabel as they both presented compelling arguments as to why their decision was the right one.
There is a great deal of atmosphere in The Light Between Oceans - the isolation of Janus is obvious, but it's also the beauty that Stedman brings out through descriptions of the lighthouse and the island itself, coupled with how haunted Tom feels by his experiences in the war.
The Light Between Oceans is undoubtedly emotional - it's hard not to side with a particular character, but I actually found myself torn for both Isabel and Tom as they are forced to make decisions about how to move forward with their lives. The ending itself is a strange mixture of being too fast-paced and yet all the open plot lines are tied up satisfyingly.
The Light Between Oceans definitely poses a lot of moral questions, but although I enjoyed it, I didn't find it to be as heart-wrenching as I thought it may be - in parts it was quite emotional but there was something about Isabel that stopped me from feeling completely sympathetic towards her.
It's good historical fiction that does more than just tell a story - I'm glad I read and enjoyed it, but I did find the ending a little disappointing.