Take a beautiful sea setting, add a few endearing but complex characters, top it off with serious moral dilemmas, and what do you get? The Light Between Oceans, an excellent debut novel by M.L. Stedman.
Set mostly at a lighthouse on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Australia, The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on the island, visited only once a season by two men who bring them supplies. This isolated existence suits Tom, who believes that if he can get far enough away from people and memories, time will heal the mental and emotional wounds he carries from fighting in World War I, especially the nightmares that remind him of the blood on his hands. He is a meticulous lighthouse keeper, always making sure the light goes on and off at the correct times and recording everything he should in the leather-bound log.
Isabel meets Tom at a dinner hosted by the harbormaster on the mainland before Tom departs for Janus. They exchange letters via the supply boat after Tom takes up residence on the island. After a year of letters highlighted by two weeks of courtship when Tom returns to the mainland after the first six months on Janus, they wed, and Isabel returns with Tom to the island.
Stedman skillfully develops the relationship between Tom and Isabel. Tom is a serious man who keeps a grip on reality by always following the rules and doing what needs to be done. Isabel has a lighter approach to life and finds ways to amuse herself on the island, including making up names for parts of the island and writing them on Tom’s map, which he considers to be Commonwealth property that should not be altered. Isabel’s greatest desire is to have a child, but three pregnancies end in either miscarriage or stillbirth.
Then comes the day of the miracle, as Isabel thinks of it. A dinghy washes ashore on the island, and in the boat are a dead man and an infant who is very much alive. Tom wants to contact the mainland and have them send a boat, but Isabel says the baby’s mother is probably dead like her father and the baby has been sent to Tom and Isabel to care for. In the first of several controversial decisions made in the book, Tom agrees and buries the man on the island.
If life were as isolated as Janus Rock, the Sherbourne family perhaps could have lived happily ever after. But it’s not. Life is filled with connections that can bring surprises, heartbreak, remorse, regret, and defiance. After two years, Tom and Isabel dare to take their daughter, whom they’ve named Lucy, to the mainland. On the morning of Lucy’s christening, as the family walks through the graveyard at the church, Isabel’s mother remarks about the memorial recently erected in the graveyard for a baby and her father who drowned.
The new knowledge sets off alarms of fear for Isabel and Tom, especially after they learn who the grieving wife and mother is. And this is where The Light Between Oceans becomes really interesting. Stedman takes the reader through all of the soul searching going on inside Isabel and Tom as new pieces of information and their own actions compound their dilemma. As a reader, you can’t help asking yourself, “What would I do?” and “What’s the right thing for these people to do?”
To bring the reader closer to the characters, Stedman uses a technique that I’ve rarely seen before. Although the novel is written in the past tense, when she describes a character’s most basic aspects, she slips into present tense, so deftly that the reader hardly notices, but the effect is real. For example,
On Janus there is no reason to speak. . . . But Tom finds a freedom in the silence. He listens to the wind. . . . Now and then, as if brought in on the breeze, the memory of Isabel’s kiss floats into his awareness.
And with Isabel,
She likes to feel the ground under her feet, and goes without shoes whenever she can. . . . She explores the boundaries of her new world.
I’d like to know more about M.L. Stedman, but she shares Elena Ferrante’s belief that once the novel is written, the author needs to get out of the way. She compares revealing too much about the author to making a movie and then standing on the stage in front of it.
So I can’t help wondering if she attended the world premiere of the movie version of The Light Between Oceans at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival in September. Although, as I said here last year, I’m leery of movies’ ever being as good as the novels they’re based on, I think this story could be adapted successfully if the dialogue is written well. It’s on my list of films to see.