I have a real weakness for novels set on or by the sea and so I was always going to want to read ML Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans but, as I immersed myself in its mood and atmosphere, it touched much more of a nerve than that. This is a novel that will keep you awake at night, both reading and savouring it and then thinking about it once it’s done.
Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper on tiny Janus Island, off the Australian coast. It is the 1920s and, as a single man, Tom is content to maintain the light in isolation for months on end, with months between deliveries of provisions, and work through his demons left to him by the trenches of the First World War. But then, while on leave, he falls in love with the vibrant Isabel. They marry and she returns to Janus and they live a happy life together on their little island, marred by one sadness: their inability to have a baby that lives. Then, one day, a boat drifts onto the island containing a dead man and a small living baby. On this isolated rock, and with Isabel as vulnerable as she is after losing another child, it doesn’t take much for matters to get out of hand. A decision is made, with excuses at first and finally with denial, and Lucy is taken into the hearts of Isabel and Tom.
This is a time when nothing in families is simple. Everyone seems to have lost someone thanks to the war. Isabel’s brothers were both killed within days of each other and so Lucy doesn’t just fill a hole in Isabel’s life but also in those of grandparents. The joy that Lucy brings is matched, of course, by guilt – deep, aggravating constant guilt. As time goes on, it becomes harder to ignore the suffering and loss that Lucy’s real mother must be enduring, compounded as this is by the mystery of the dead man in the boat. Reading The Light Between Oceans, you just know that this cannot end well for everyone or indeed for anyone. Not everything can stay on the island.
The Light Between Oceans is brilliantly written, evoking perfectly life on the island and on the almost equally remote mainland. This is a small community and relationships are complex. The joy and pain that Lucy brings in equal measure is quite heartbreaking to read and, as the novel progresses and consequences take shape, with ramifications for so many people, it defies you to stay dry-eyed. However, this isn’t a depressing novel, it’s written too beautifully and its landscapes and people are too striking. Tom is our observer and through him we witness so many changes in Isabel as well as the growing child. But as we watch his family, it becomes evermore difficult to ignore Tom’s increasing distance from it.
The Light Between Oceans is an extraordinary debut that more than rewards the emotion that you’ll invest in it.