|The Light Between Oceans
4.5 / 5
"On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross."
The debut of a stunning new voice in fiction--a novel both heartbreaking and transcendent
After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby's cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom's judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.
M. L. Stedman's mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel's decision to keep this "gift from God." And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another's tragic loss.
The Light Between Oceans is exquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel.
I adore creative works which impel me to ask, "What would I do in the same situation?" This books was certainly one of those, and I think that's a large part of why I loved it so much. Granted, the writing was also beautiful and haunting, which made this move from a really good book to a great one. I can see why it is beloved by many.
Tom begins his postwar career as the lighthouse keeper in a remote southwestern Australia outpost, and he is lucky to make the acquaintance of Isabel, the love of his life. She is willing to move to the island to live with him in isolation, and everything goes beautifully until the couple begins to experience miscarriages. Isabel is broken from the experience of losing her babies (three times, no less!), and therefore it seems almost to make sense when she wants to keep a strange infant who washes up on shore one day. Against his best judgment, Tom grudgingly agrees to this, even while he worries that the baby might have family that is waiting for her return. Since the couple is so very separated from society and visits the mainland only every few years, it is easy for them to pass off the newborn as their own.
Yet Tom's conscience begins to sink its teeth in and not let go, even while Isabel continues to fight to keep the child that they have both grown to love so much. Izzy can internally rationalize her own situation so well that when there is the threat of Lucy being taken away from her, Isabel feels the righteous anger of a birth mother. So while the reader can really sympathize with Tom's situation (he feels the need to do what is right, and not make the baby's true family suffer a loss they don't have to), Isabel's situation is also oddly understandable, particularly in light of her having lost so many babies. It makes sense that she is so wracked with grief that she grasps at the first chance at a happy family. In a strange way, anyway. I'm lucky never to have experienced either the loss of a baby or the terror of being a mother losing her beloved child, but I could still understand Izzy's feelings (even if I couldn't condone them).
The story just feels so real, and I think that is what I loved most about it. It was also great exposure to a post-WWI Australia, which I had only been vaguely aware of. The country was suffering just as much as Europe and America after the war; they'd lost innumerable young men to the fight, too. It's not something I've encountered much in my exposure to WWI, so it was good to be reminded.
I also loved how the lighthouse played a central role in the story, being both a beacon of love and light and hope, but also a warning to ships (and perhaps people) to stay away - DANGER! After all, that is its job. I loved the "light between oceans" concept, as Tom's light was located at the dividing line between the Indian and Antarctic Oceans. The baby girl, though, also played a role as a "light" which both united and divided many people (unintentionally, as she was so young when everything happened).
I want to talk and talk and talk about this novel, but I'll shush for now. If anyone would like to discuss further, though, I'd be glad to in the comments! For now, I'll leave the readers with some images from The Write Life which show one of the lighthouses that Stedman based Janus Rock upon:
Read the book for more beauty. Seriously. Humanity written perfectly.
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