Customer Review

Reviewed in Australia on 7 June 2014
Is it possible to make the wrong choice for the right reasons? These are the moral dilemmas posed by author ML Stedman in her powerful debut novel The Light Between Oceans.
On Anzac day 1926, a German immigrant who arrived in Australia prior to World War 1 (and was interred for the duration), is walking with his wife and baby when they are attacked by drunken locals. This attack sets in motion events which have heartbreaking consequences.
Tom Sherbourne physically survived WW1, but mentally he can’t quite face life; why him when so many others didn’t come home? He needs healing time and takes a job on Janus Rock, a lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia. Much to his surprise he meets Isabel in the town of Point Partageuse and although he discourages her advances, she is not a lady easily discouraged. After a long courtship conducted by letter, they marry and Isabel joins him on the island.
In the 1920s lighthouse keeping wasn’t an easy life; for starters there was the isolation, the supply ship only visited quarterly and leave was only given every three years. The light itself required many hours work to keep it functioning, cleaning, polishing, refilling the lamp which powered the flame.
“The oceans never stop ... the wind never finishes. Sometimes it disappears, but only to gather momentum from somewhere else, returning to fling itself at the island ... Existence here is on the scale of giants. Time is in the millions of years; rocks which from a distance look like dice cast against the shore are boulders hundreds of feet wide, licked round by millennia ...”
Despite this, Tom and Isabel grow stronger in their marriage, their happiness only marred by the lack of the children they so desire. When their third baby is stillborn, Isabel moves into a dark place where Tom cannot follow.
A boat with a dead man and a mewling baby washes ashore on Janus Rock and Isabel quickly sees it as a sign from God that she is supposed to raise this child, a replacement for the baby she and Tom have just buried. Tom intends to record the wrecked boat into the lighthouse log, he even leaves blank spaces to enter the details, but bows to Isabel’s wish to raise this child as their own and so the beautiful and precocious Lucy restores the light to Isabel’s eyes. “Once a child gets into your heart, there’s no right or wrong about it.”
Is their decision right? Is it wrong, but justifiable? Is there a woman somewhere searching for her husband and child? How would you react in these circumstances?
For me this novel worked on so many levels; I felt empathy for the main protagonists and cared for them. Would I have made the choices the author made in the telling of the story? I honestly don’t know, but I do know these choices were well supported by the story. I love the way Stedman uses duality throughout the novel; Janus Rock for example is named for the two faced god Janus; baby Lucy has two stories; the main locations of Janus Rock, island, and Point Partageuse, mainland; even the name of the novel refers to the point where the calm Indian Ocean meets the turbulent Great Southern Ocean.
I’d like to share with you another quote from the book which I find particularly insightful – “She knew that if a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent loses a child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or daughter. That seemed odd.”
The Light Between Oceans is a story which held me and just when I thought I had it worked out, the author made slight shifts to the story. Great read, highly recommended.
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