Saturday, January 11, 2014

Review: The light between oceans by M.L. Stedman

I am a picky reader of fiction these days. The world is too much with us. This time of transition in society at large is so fascinating that I spend much reading time searching the muddy stream of the internet for gold nuggets of insight. 

My patience with 'first world problems' has become limited.
An average Western novel written in the second half of the twentieth century feels quaint.  Did people really have that much energy to fret about their relationships and their precious personal growth? It already seems like historical fiction.

A novel has to be outstanding to grab me and hold my attention to the end. M.L. Stedman's "The Light between oceans" is such a book.

I have just put it down and am still sniffling. Yes, this is literally a tear jerker, it is that good. 

The title refers to a lighthouse on the South Western tip of Australia, on a small island facing both the Indian ocean and the icy, stormy Southern sea.

The opening sentence is brilliant. "On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross."

The miracle turns out to be the beaching of a row boat containing a dead man and a tiny baby, very much alive. For Isabel, the lighthouse keeper's wife, this baby is a gift from God after the heartbreak of 2 miscarriages and a stillbirth. Bonding is immediate. She convinces her conscientious husband Tom to postpone reporting the event.

Backtrack to the couple's origins.

Tom Shelbourne had returned to his native Australia after 4 years of WWI hell in the trenches. He is alienated from his father and brother. 
'Working the lights' suits him. The combination of isolation and rigid discipline allows him to cope with survival guilt and post traumatic stress. Janus is the first posting where he is fully in charge. The Light and the toil to keep it going is described in detail, quite interesting.

Young, spontaneous Isabel Graysmark had lost both her older brothers to the war, and knows all too well that young men with all their limbs intact are a scarce commodity. She takes the initiative in a courtship that takes Tom by surprise, and makes the life on the rocky outpost her own. Life on Janus island is idyllic but for the miscarriages and stillbirth.

Out of love for Isabel Tom does not record the incident and buries the dead man in an unmarked grave. The couple then passes the baby off as their own. This is easy to do, since the only contact with the outer world is a boat that brings supplies every three months.

Life with Lucy, as they call the child, is idyllic, though overshadowed by Tom's worries about living a lie. When he finds out that the mother of the baby is not only alive but devastated and still looking for her child his peace is gone. Any choice he makes now will destroy someone's happiness. There is no easy way out. I want to avoid spoilers. Let's just say the story brings in new characters and unexpected twists and turns.

The only criticism I might have is that the character of Tom is almost too noble to be true. But that is small potatoes. This is a beautifully written, thought provoking and ultimately uplifting book. Read it. 

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