Review: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

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An emotional tale of love and loss that asks can it ever be justifiable to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?

About the Book

Publisher’s Description: The year is 1926. After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne takes up the post of lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock. In the small coastal town on his way to Janus, Tom meets the headstrong, vibrant Isabel. They fall in love, and on his first shore leave they marry, then return to Janus together—both eager to begin their life, cocooned from the rest of the world with just each other, the gulls, and the stars for company. Years later, after two miscarriages and one still birth, Isabel’s grief is all consuming. But one fateful, April morning she hears the sound of cries carried in on the wind: a small boat has washed ashore, its occupants a dead man and a squalling baby girl. Tom wants to report the boat immediately, but Isabel resists, pleading with him to put it off for just one day. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim the girl as their own and name her Lucy—a devastating, resounding choice that forever changes two worlds.

My Review

This best-selling, multi-award winning novel – made into a film in 2016 – forms part of my From Page to Screen Reading Challenge. I will be comparing the book and the film in a separate post.

I found the story of Tom and Isabel emotionally engaging, even harrowing at times as their longing to have a child is tragically denied.  The dilemma for the author is to make the reader understand and empathise with their decision to claim the rescued baby as their own. Isabel’s profound grief at her failed pregnancies, culminating in a kind of madness, is convincingly portrayed and it seems understandable that she should view the miracle of the baby as a sort of divine compensation for and acknowledgement of her loss.   From the reader’s first introduction to Tom, it is apparent he feels an immense sense of guilt that he should have survived the war unscathed when so many of his comrades did not. This overwhelming sense of guilt is the key to his decision to acquiesce to Isabel’s plea not to report the boat, his actions when he learns the truth about the baby’s origins and, ultimately, his desire to protect Isabel from the consequences of their actions.

For me, the standout aspect of the book was the depiction of Janus in all its raw beauty and the guardian role of the lighthouse ‘slicing the darkness like a sword’. There is much imaginative and lyrical writing:

‘The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat.’  

‘The wind continued its ancient vendetta against the windows, accompanied by the liquid thunder of waves.’

I have to admit that, once Janus was left behind, I found the story less compelling and Isabel’s ultimate choice didn’t completely convince me given all that had gone before.  I am rather averse to excessively schmaltzy endings and to me the final chapter read like it was designed to provide a suitably “Hollywood” finale (as indeed it now has).

Book facts: 356 pages, publication date July 2012

My rating: 4 (out of 5)

In three words: Emotional, lyrical, thought-provoking

Try something similar…Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

About the Author

M.L. Stedman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London. The Light Between Oceans is her first novel.

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