The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Jul 21, 2014

For me, a really good book = a vividly beautiful location + realistically flawed characters + a sweet (but not overdone) romance + an historical backdrop + moral tension/resolution.

A really amazing (or insert superlative adjective of choice) book  = all of the above + gorgeous writing.

The Light Between Oceans was amazing (or awesome, fantastic, wonderful, magnificent, etc.).

When Tom Sherbourne returns from World War I, he just wants to continue to do his duty. So he requests a light keeping position off the coast of Australia. Janus Rock is almost no bigger than the lighthouse that sits on it and is completely uninhabited save for the lightkeeper, with visits from the supply boat once every three months. But when the post at Janus Rock becomes available, Tom takes it.  The quiet order of lightkeeping suits him fine and gives him lots of time to sort out his guilt over the War.

Meanwhile, he takes up a tediously slow correspondence (exchanging letters once every three months isn't a terribly effective method of communication) with pretty and vivacious Isabel Graysmark. Even with the distance between them,the sparks fly, and they get married when Tom gets shore leave.

Life on Janus Rock is idyllic for the newlyweds (even with all the work of maintaining the light, it's like an extended honeymoon), and Isabel is convinced the only thing that could make it better would be a child of their own. Two miscarriages and a stillbirth later, her dreams seem shattered, and she is on the brink of despair. Tom, who is also grieving deeply but much more quietly, doesn't know how to comfort Isabel.

One morning, Isabel hears a baby's cry carried on the wind. She's sure she must be hallucinating but then hears Tom calling from the shore. A boat has just washed up carrying a dead man and a crying baby girl. In a moment, all of Isabel's motherly instincts have fired up and she calms the crying baby with joy and gratitude. Tom wants to signal the authorities immediately (it is regulation, after all--he must account for every occurrence on the island), but Isabel begs him to wait just until morning, and by that time, she has already given her heart and soul to this tiny infant . . . who belongs to someone else.

On the surface, the whole scenario seemed pretty cut and dry: of course Isabel should have let Tom send for a boat immediately. As I was reading, my mind was practically screaming the instructions, Don't listen to her, Tom! She's still grieving her lost baby, but there will only be more pain if you keep a baby that isn't yours. Do your duty. Do what you know is right. 

But my heart? Another matter entirely. Especially since just two months ago, I was still pregnant and experiencing the daily anxiety, What if something happens to this baby? I already had so much love for him, and I hadn't even officially met him yet. And then once I did meet him? He instantly captured my affection and love and adoration.

So as I read and silently begged Tom to give up the baby, I held my own sweet baby boy and felt his contented breathing against my chest, and the emotional side of me just ached for Isabel. Decisions that are so black and white when we use our heads are much more difficult when we involve our hearts. And guess what? We're humans, which means it's virtually impossible to cut our hearts from the equation entirely.

I think it's fascinating to see how people balance the mind/heart conflict. In this case, Tom and Isabel are so different: Tom can't ignore his mind, and Isabel can't ignore her heart, and if it were just a struggle between those two alone, it would be heart wrenching enough. But then you factor in a whole host of other characters (Hannah, Ralph, Septimus, Lucy, Gwen, Violet, Bill), and you see that even if you live on an isolated island, your decisions have the ability to affect and hurt others.

And beyond that, events are not isolated to one moment in time. For example, Tom's decisions are affected not only by his experiences in the war but even before that, to the abandonment he felt as a child. Human nature is incredibly complex. Every time I thought I had a grip on the whole situation, Stedman would expose another layer and send me questioning everything again. This is truly great writing: to be able to present a problem in such a real way and give you so much empathy for every character that you feel the pain and trauma as if you're making these decisions yourself.

But in spite of all the mistakes and irrational decisions, there was only one point in the entire book where I held my breath in agonized suspense. Ultimately, my satisfaction with the story hinged on this one moment and the decision of one character. I don't want to give anything away, but if it had gone one way, it would have just been too much for me to bear, and I would have hated the book. As it was, there was still much sadness (this is not a sunshine-and-roses type of story) but also redemption.

One of the things I loved the most about this story was the lighthouse. It was both a tangible object and a constant analogy for life. I knew very little about lighthouses before reading this, but Stedman described everything so beautifully (the mechanics, the functions, the purpose). I could almost feel the strain in my legs from climbing so many stairs and see the shimmering glass of the lens. The lighthouse really provided an anchor for the entire story--all things led back to its constancy and steadiness. It was really, really beautiful. 

With a story like this one, that kept me guessing and hoping and cringing and pleading the entire time, I always wonder how long it will stay with me. Will I still be thinking about it in a week? A month? A year? As the details start to fade, will I long to return to these much-beloved characters and watch the struggle unfold again? These are not questions I can answer yet, but I have my suspicions this is not a story I will soon forget.


Content note: some foul language, including one use of the f-word and multiple deity terms.

8 comments:

  1. I've been looking forward to your review of this book because I want to read it, I'm glad you liked it so much! I'm definitely going to add it to my library stack.

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  2. I'm so glad you liked this book. I've been working my way through it for a while a now (I have it on audio, I just can't seem to find the time to listen to audio books these days), but so far I've loved everything about it. I'm dying to get it finished.

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  3. I recently found a copy of this at Goodwill so I'm so excited that you loved this! I'm not reading your comments yet- but I'll come back to this post when I've read the book too, so excited now;)

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  4. So glad that you liked it:) It is such a powerful read!!

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  5. This was a book club favorite!!!

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  6. I've gone back and forth on this one. I'm like you. I'm a mother. Before I became a mother I was more objective. Now I would be on pins and needles for the mother.

    Great review.

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  7. I just finished this book. It was the first book that was chosen for our new book club! I completely agree--amazing! And SO beautifully written! I'm still thinking about it. I didn't necessarily love the ending--was a little sad. But it had nothing to do with the writing. In that kind of a situation, there really has to be a lesser of two evils choice.

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