The Light Between Oceans is the debut novel of Australian-born author M.L. Stedman. I found this to be an amazing and moving book, but difficult to review without giving away too many details.
A young man, Tom Sherbourne, has survived the trenches of World War I to return home to Australia. He has no family to return to and while he is physically unharmed, he bears the internal scars of that horrible war. Before the war he was educated as an engineer, so he is uniquely qualified to accept a position as a lighthouse keeper. He is assigned to Janus Rock, an island 100 off the southwest coast of Australia. Janus is situated where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean. Four times per year he is visited by a supply boat, and every other year he is entitled to a months’ leave. Tom eventually bring a young wife, Isabel, to Janus Rock and they are a happy, compatible couple. Their joy is marred by Isabel and Tom’s inability to have a baby. Isabel suffers one miscarriage after another.
Shortly after Isabel loses another baby, a small boat carrying a dead man and a living infant washes up on Janus Rock. The only clues to their identity are the woman’s sweater that the baby is wrapped up in, and a unique silver rattle. As lightkeeper, one of Tom’s obligations is to log all events that take place on Janus. Grief-stricken by her losses, Isabel asks Tom not to record this. Isabel, naturally, wants to raise this infant as their own. Tom reluctantly agrees. He buries the man on Janus, and sets the boat adrift.
Thus begins the moral ambiguity that is the centerpiece of this of this extraordinary novel. Tom and Isabel’s life on Janus continues while they raise their beloved child. At their next shore leave, Isabel’s parents are delighted to meet their granddaughter. Their joy is especially great as they had lost their other two children, Isabel’s brothers, in the Great War. The baby brings new life and great happiness to the entire family. But joy for one family is often at the expense of another.
The Light Between Oceans is awash with detail. It is especially interesting to read about life on a remote island. And it’s a good reminder of the sacrifices some people make to help ensure the safety of others. The characters are well-thought out and believable. The story moves along quickly, always raising questions . Did Isabel and Tom do the right thing? And for who? Themselves, their family, or the baby? I highly recommend this book. And if I can find the time, I hope to re-read it. And I don’t say that too often!
Published in hardcover-Scribner-2012
Softcover edition-Scribner-available April 2013