In usual fashion, I arrived late to the book-movie party: just two days before The Light Between Oceans hit theaters everywhere (except, I would later discover, southwestern Kansas), I grabbed my copy of the novel and settled in for a solid weekend of reading.
The novel, written by M.L. Stedman in 2012, is pegged mostly everywhere as a love story; but I think it would be better considered a family drama. Set in southwestern Australia in the years following WWI, the tale follows the lives of two people destined to meet: Tom Sherbourne, a war veteran; and Isabel, his younger and more fanciful counterpart from Point Partaguese, a tucked-away town on Australia’s west coast.
Decorated as a war hero, Tom returns to Australia to become a lighthouse keeper — temporarily placed at Janus Rock, an island less than a day’s journey from Point Partaguese. His contract is drawn up for six months, during which time he will serve as a replacement keeper for the previous man who lost his wife (and then his mind). Whereas others might be intimidated by the isolation and extreme loneliness of a lightkeeper’s life, Tom welcomes the seclusion. His experiences in the war have left him guilt-ridden; his concepts of fairness and destiny challenged by the horrors of death and brutality. With only a few hours of human contact every few months, Tom flourishes under the day-to-day routines that comprise his life as keeper of the light on Janus Rock.
During a brief time at the mainland, Tom encounters Isabel — young, convivial, and ornery. Despite their oppositional personalities — one brooding and silent, the other energetic and willful — the two form an unlikely bond that isn’t hindered by his dutiful devotion to the lighthouse. In a courtship that seems both uncomfortably quick and altogether plausible (for that day and age), the young couple is married and whisked back to the island, where Isabel falls into the life of a lightkeeper’s wife with an almost irritatingly starry-eyed fervor. Her joy is stifled, though, when her first two births end in miscarriage and her third, a stillborn.
Not surprisingly, the losses take an exaggerated toll on Isabel, so far removed from loved acquaintances and the comforts of mainland Australia. When a living baby is washed up to the shore, then, Isabel clings to the only truth she can: this child is a gift from God. The events that follow create a heartbreaking tale of heartbreak, betrayal, denial, and sacrifice.
Stedman’s writing thrilled me. Her exquisite use of language, coupled with an unhappy but deeply moving plot, results in a satisfying and captivating story readers won’t soon forget. Characters are placed in complex predicaments that even the morally-upright would have to mull over. Stedman has composed a book that is a little bit love, a little bit loss, a little bit fate, and a little bit mystery; and she weaves the threads together into a poignant tapestry of fiction.
Rating: 4/5 stars. An engaging read with beautiful prose make this a book you can recommend to friends.