A friend whose taste in books I admire loaned me The Light Between Oceans. I didn’t know anything about it other than she thought it was a terrific read.
Now, The Light Between Two Oceans is listed on Amazon.com under books or e-books>historical fiction> literary fiction. I admit to not being a lover of literary fiction. To me, the designation describes a novel in which not very much happens, but it happens beautifully.
The Light Between Oceans is achingly beautiful in its descriptive power thanks to the talents of its Australian author, M.L. Stedman, who steals into the minds of its two main characters, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, to reveal their heartrending story.
Set on an Australian island in the post-WW1 years, Tom, a damaged survivor of the war to end all wars, is the Janus Rock lighthouse keeper and a man who suffers from survivor’s guilt.
His wife, Isabel, is a happy young woman who’s determined to make Tom a good wife and a fine mother for his children. Problem is, she never carries her babies to full term. On the heels of her fourth miscarriage, nearing a nervous breakdown, a dinghy carrying a dead man and a squalling infant girl washes up on the island. Isabel begs Tom to keep the child she calls Lucy. For love of his wife and his marriage, and despite his misgivings about those who may be missing the baby, he agrees. He buries the body and keeps the baby, violating government rules for lighthouse keeping and setting into motion a chain of events that will not stop until their lives are nearly ruined.
The story makes one give thought to the notion of what motherhood is; what rights a child has, or what’s best for a young child, and most of all, shows what happens when a loving husband follows his heart and defies his conscience and training, for when Tom and Isabel visit Isabel’s hometown after Lucy’s first birthday, they hear the story of a mother whose child went missing about the same time Lucy appeared on Janus Rock–a child in a dinghy with its father, a child beloved by a now distraught and some say slightly mad mother named Hannah Roennfeldt who still yearns for her daughter.
With his survivor guilt forcing him to help Hannah, Tom leaves notes for her. He means only to assuage Hannah’s fear that her daughter, Grace, is dead, while at the same time protecting Isabel and Lucy, but the notes resurrect Hannah’s hope of finding Grace. Her search raises questions about Tom and Isabel’s daughter in some folks’ minds. And when Tom leaves Hannah her daughter’s silver teething ring, a friend of Tom’s recognizes it as Lucy’s. Doubts about Lucy’s parentage and Tom and Isabel’s story become accusations of murder and kidnapping.
From here, though the writing moves the reader to tears more than once, you can guess what happens. Lucy is torn from Isabel’s arms. To spare Isabel in her shattered state, Tom shoulders the blame for the crime and risks prison. Hannah tries hard to capture her daughter’s love. Lucy, or Grace, is literally ripped from the arms of the woman she loves, the only woman she knows as her mother,and handed over to her birth mother. The law’s attitude is pretty blunt. Little Lucy–or Grace–will get over it. Never mind that she acts out plays with her new toys, little scenes so chilling, so telling of the child’s anxiety that the reader winces.
You can guess who wins the child. You can guess which couple become estranged and why. This much follows the legal, moral, and natural paths. So in that respect, once the wrong is uncovered and the wheels of justice are set in motion, there is no real climax though hearts are broken and characters are changed .
Is that where the story ends? Yes and no. Will I tell you HOW it ends? That’s a no. You’ll have to read it to find out. Despite being maddeningly predictable for its latter half, to stop reading would be like trying to turn away from watching a train wreck. The writing, by turns irresistible in its starkness, sparkling in its descriptive power, evocative, and poignant, compels the reader to continue on to its end.