Review of The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
The novel is set in the 1920s in western Australia. Tom Sherbourne, a World War I vet, becomes the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote, uninhabited island. On one of his shore leaves he meets a young woman named Isabel whom he eventually marries and takes to Janus Rock with him. Their marriage is happy except that Isabel is devastated by two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Just after this last tragedy, a boat washes up on shore with a dead man and an infant. Isabel convinces Tom that they should keep the baby girl and pass it off as their own. This is the story of the consequences of that decision which becomes more difficult to undo as time passes.
The book examines the impact of isolation on morality. “The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” Tom and Isabel live the story they tell themselves since “History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent” and “everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Everything changes of course when they see the impact of their actions on others. Tom “begins to wonder how he could have inflicted such suffering. He begins to wonder what the bloody hell he’s done. ” Once he sees the consequences of their actions, Tom becomes like Janus, the god after whom the island was named: “Always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things.”
Another major theme is that of love, in particular the love of a parent for a child and the love between a husband and wife, and what people are capable of doing in the name of love. Sometimes love blinds people to the truth. At one point Tom ponders love: “He struggles to make sense of it – all this love, so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens.” The light of the lighthouse guides mariners to safety by showing them the right way to take; the problem is that Tom does not have a light to guide him because “A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.”
A major strong point of this book is that the author manages to make everyone’s motives understandable to the reader. We come to understand why Isabel thinks “God has sent us an angel” and why Tom agrees to the deception despite his misgivings but then has difficulty living with his decision. Both Tom and Isabel’s family backgrounds are given and they too help explain the reasons for their actions throughout the book. The viewpoint of minor characters is occasionally given so even their behaviour is made plausible.
No easy answers are given, and that is another reason I recommend the book. The lens in the lighthouse is “all light and clarity.” Unfortunately, life is not, and this book gives us pause to contemplate its dark corners.