Friday, April 11, 2014

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

Being a lighthouse keeper had to be a very lonely job, especially on the more remote lights. But it was a very important job as well, requiring a meticulous caretaker who understood the nature of the job he was taking on and the gravity and magnitude of his duty. Obviously not all people were suited to working on a light station, with its solitude and rule bound life. And it certainly would have been a tough life on those who perhaps didn't understand it completely when they chose it, like the spouses of keepers. In M. L. Stedman's heartbreaking novel, The Light Between the Oceans, this remote and lonely existence coupled with unimaginable sorrows pushes a lighthouse keeper and his wife into making a decision that will tear apart several lives and leave holes in their hearts forever.

Tom Sherbourne enlisted in the Australian army and fought in World War I to get away from his father. That he survived the war didn't give him any satisfaction and left him with horrific memories. But he wasn't as damaged by his experience in Europe as many men and he came back physically whole, if mentally haunted. Wanting to keep an emotional distance from other people and settle into an easy and comfortable routine, Tom was the perfect person to pursue a job as a lighthouse keeper. Having done some relief work admirably at other remote lights, when a posting came up for the Western-most light off Australia, Janus Rock, Tom applied and was granted the position.

When the understanding and morally upright Tom traveled out to take up his post, he stopped in Point Partaguese before his final leg out to the light. It was here that he met Isabel, a young woman full of light herself who coaxed him out of himself and who came to mean the world to him. When they married on one of Tom's shore leaves, they were filled with love for each other and eager for their life out on Janus Rock. But after two miscarriages and an almost full term stillbirth, Isabel was almost broken when a boat washed up in the cove on Janus. In the boat was a dead man and a live infant girl. Isabel took the baby into her heart the moment she saw her and convinced Tom, despite his heavy misgivings, that the baby, who must certainly be orphaned, was sent to them by God. So Tom didn't report the baby's arrival on their chunk of rock a hundred miles off the coast, allowing Isabel to claim that baby Lucy was their natural born child. If he couldn't give his wife a child of their own, he could grant her this baby from providence. This decision, though decided upon with no malice, is a decision that will haunt Tom, threaten to destroy the Sherbournes, change their lives forever, and cause untold, unintentional pain to the baby's real mother, frantic and desperate back on the mainland.

Stedman has written an emotionally taxing tale of love, guilt, a moral conundrum, and the terrible price of our decisions. Wanting something so desperately doesn't make claiming that something right but it isn't always a black and white decision either. Her depiction of Tom's anguish over Isabel's pain and unraveling is heartfelt and lovely. He understands what drives her because of the nightmares and hauntings he's suffered since the war and yet he is willing to sacrifice his own sense of morality and of who he is as a person to keep his beloved wife from flying apart. The baby is a figurative light between two families just as Janus Rock literally stands between two oceans.  But Lucy/Grace is also the reef upon which the boat of the Sherbourne's marriage will flounder.

The novel is quite slow to start, building Tom's backstory and then focusing on Tom and Isabel's unconventional courtship for quite a long time. And yet even with the slow build, Tom's complete and unwavering devotion to Isabel was still somehow unexplainable in its depths. Isabel certainly suffered more than her share of devastating losses out on the island but her unwillingness to even consider or acknowledge the losses that Hannah suffered in not knowing her husband and daughter's fate made her a little less than sympathetic as a character.  Finally, the catalyst for the entire story, the arrival by rowboat of a dead man and a living infant, required quite a suspension of disbelief too. Given that it took hours for the supply boat, using an engine, to arrive at Janus, believing that the rowboat drifted there easily and the baby was no worse for wear other than being hungry is frankly incredible, even if the boat was being pulled along in a swift current. But if you allow for this situation to be true, the rest of the story is gripping as the reader watches the fates of the baby and of all those who love her play out in dramatic fashion.  A tragic, harrowing tale of family, sorrow, deep and abiding love, and what we are willing to do and to compromise in order to keep our loved ones happy, this novel is a promising debut.


  1. I liked this novel too, especially the lighthouse and island parts early in the novel. Really could picture it. Here is my thoughts on it at

  2. I enjoyed reading your review. I enjoyed this book.

  3. One of my book clubs just selected this as our next read. I'm hoping I can actually get to it.


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