Sunday, August 30, 2015

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

Ouch! This book hurts. It’s also dazzlingly beautiful, but the more you succumb to the beauty of the prose and of the remote island setting where the story unfolds, the more the plot rips your heart out. At least this was my experience.

But let me back up. The Light Between Oceans is a 2012 debut novel by Australian author M. L. Stedman. Many people read it; most loved it (approximately 156,000 reviews on GoodReads at last count). Then, DreamWorks acquired the film rights and a movie was made, starring Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz among others. The movie’s set for release in 2016. I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle the story again.

The main characters are Tom Sherbourn, a stalwart and upstanding but emotionally ravaged young World War I vet, and his free-spirited, newlywed wife, Isabel, who set up house (or lighthouse, to be precise) on isolated Janus Rock off the west coast of Australia, where Tom has signed on as light-keeper.

The book’s opening chapters are idyllic. Janus is the perfect place for these starry-eyed lovers to hole up and for Tom to heal. They both love the sea, the solitude, the silence. Some of the novel’s most gorgeous passages capture the fluctuating water, altering sky, and shifting light. But Isabel yearns for a baby. Over several years she suffers two miscarriages and an agonizing stillbirth.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island’s remote side, carrying a dead body and a tiny living infant. Tom’s position requires that he record and report every happening on Janus Rock, but, very reluctantly, he allows Isabel to persuade him that the infant is now likely an orphan and might just be a gift bestowed by the universe after all the heartbreak they’ve suffered in their attempts to make a child. So, Tom buries the dead man and sets the boat adrift while Isabel begins caring for the infant, who instantly wins their hearts and completes their family.

The chapters that follow continue the idyll: Tom, Isabel, and Baby Lucy compose a near-perfect happy family who thrive in their exquisite life on Janus Rock. Only Tom suffers pangs of conscience -- over what he has allowed to take place, what he has omitted from his reports, an omission that could end his light-keeping career and lead to formal charges. And indeed Tom’s misgivings bear fruit. The idyll ends and the pain begins.

The moral of the story (and this is quite courageous on the author’s part) seems to be that we inhabit a moral universe, the truth will out, and wrong acts will have their full repercussions. Stedman unfolds the rippling consequences of the Sherbourns’ wrong act in a slow and meticulous way that is absolutely wrenching for the reader, who watches in horror as the family on Janus Rock is slowly ripped asunder. Sure, justice is ultimately served – and I’m 100% for justice – but in this instance I’m afraid I was rooting for the wrong: for Tom, Isabel, and stolen Baby Lucy in their island paradise rimmed by dolphins and whales.

~Ann, Adult Services

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