The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman takes place on a lonely island of rock situated at the tip of Australia. A lighthouse and its keeper, placed far away from all civilization, ensure that ships don’t take shortcuts and run aground on the shoals. The lightkeeper is named Tom, and he’s just returned from four years in the service, fighting WWI back in England and on the continent. He likes the solitude, the routine of this job. When he unexpectedly falls in love with a girl in the next town – one willing to life the life of a lightkeeper’s wife – it’s his own little miracle.
Tom and Isabel settle into married life out on Janus Rock. Tom hoping to put lost years behind him and build something new, Isabel ready to start her own family after seeing years of loss: brothers not coming home, families in her community torn apart by a war taking place thousands of miles away. After a third heartbreaking miscarriage all alone out on the island, Tom and Isabel believe their changes of a family are waning thin – until a little infant washes ashore in a boat.
Their story expands and twists and begins to involve new characters from the moment Lucy enters their lives. The novel tackles some interesting topics: How does a man recover from the war he has seen? What makes a woman a mother? What kind of loss is too much to handle for a frail human spirit? And what is the cost of the truth?
(apologies for a lack of page numbers – read on Kindle)
“From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa.”
“You could still tell at a glance who’d been over there and who’d sat the war out at home. You could smell it on a man.”
“So many men who had dodged death over there now seemed addicted to its lure.”
“Nineteen fourteen was just flags and new-smelling leather on uniforms. It wasn’t until a year later that life started to feel different—started to feel as if maybe this wasn’t a sideshow after all—when, instead of getting back their precious, strapping husbands and sons, the women began to get telegrams.”
“‘She’s a beauty all right,’ said Tom, taking in the giant lens, far taller than himself, atop the rotating pedestal: a palace of prisms like a beehive made from glass. It was the very heart of Janus, all light and clarity and silence.”
“It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.”
“He knows keepers who swear under their breath at the obligation, but Tom takes comfort from the orderliness of it. It is a luxury to do something that serves no practical purpose: the luxury of civilization.”
“Other blokes might take advantage, but to Tom, the idea of honor was a kind of antidote to some of the things he’d lived through.”
” ‘Just—well, don’t get confused between a thing itself and the first time you come across it. Think it over.’ ”
“To bear witness to the death, without being broken by the weight of it.”
“It put things into perspective—the stars had been around since before there were people. They just kept shining, no matter what was going on.”
“There had been nothing to wait for before—Tom had grown so used to greeting the days as ends in themselves.”
“You could kill a bloke with rules, Tom knew that. And yet sometimes they were what stood between man and savagery, between man and monsters. The rules that said you took a prisoner rather than killed a man.”
“Lucy grew. The light turned. Time passed.”
“Many a woman had received the meager collection of things which constituted her son’s life.”
“She knew that if a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent lost a child, there was no special label for their grief.”
“The quickest way to send a bloke mad is to let him go on re-fighting his war till he gets it right.”
” ‘I’ve learned the hard way that to have any kind of a future you’ve got to give up hope of ever changing your past.’ ”
“His other half of the sky.”
“He’s lived the life he’s lived. He’s loved the woman he’s loved. No one ever has or ever will travel quite the same path on this earth, and that’s all right by him.”
“Scars are just another kind of memory.”
What made this a good story?
Stedman writes with a delicate, rolling pen: her words echo the waves that wash up on the Janus shore, calculated, rhythmic, tantalizingly lovely. The characters feel real, jumping off the page in the first moments, not needing time to develop. The plot? Memorable. Wholly engaging and pulls you along until the last page.
What could have made it a better story?
Later on in the novel, I feel as if the cast of characters expands too much, too quickly. We go from three main characters plus four or five auxiliary ones to dozens all moving and all with separate agendas. The novel goes from a lovely, muted pastoral to almost a procedural when the law becomes involved, and it didn’t feel like the pieces joined together well. Still, throughout the whole novel the character of Tom remains clear, crisp, and utterly readable.
Have you read The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman? Is it on your list?
P.S. If you like this book, you’ll probably love All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.