Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2012

The Light Between Oceans (2012), by M.L.Stedman

The Light Between OceansLast night I was in the mood for something light to read at bedtime, so I started The Light Between Oceans, a debut novel from expat Aussie M.L. Stedman, and I finished it this morning.  It’s a page-turner.

It was, according to the publisher, the subject of a bidding war, and my guess is that it’s already been optioned for film, too.  Probably a three-hankie film.

But that’s because it’s very good at what the story tries to do.  It asks the question, who wins, when competing claims for a child’s love have equal moral force?  Although the characters and setting are remote in time and place, this is a question faced every day when divorcing couples sort out custody battles…and with this book, it is the reader who must make the Judgement of Solomon.

Fresco of the Judgment of Solomon (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

When in the years after WW1 the decorated war hero Tom Sherbourne tries to come to terms with survivor guilt, he finds solace as a lighthouse-keeper at Janus Island, off the WA coast.  Tom’s lighthouse is modelled on the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, situated on the wild south-westerly point on the mainland where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean. It is no accident that Stedman’s island is thus named: two-faced Janus looks to the future and the past and he is the god of beginnings and transitions.

Tom’s lucky to find a wife willing to endure the isolation; Isabel is lucky to find a man with all his limbs intact.  Their love story is deftly handled, not too sentimental or slushily romantic, because the plot focus lies elsewhere.

Yet even in the early days of their relationship Stedman hints at a chasm between them when Isobel, bothered that there are un-named places on the island, has the temerity to inscribe her own names for special sites on the Commonwealth Government’s map, a map that – according to the swathe of regulations governing conduct for lighthouse employees – should remain pristine.  Tom is horrified, because he believes from his experiences on the Western Front that it’s the rules which protect man from barbarism.  He is meticulous in observing these rules, but he lets the marks stay, out of love for his young and impulsive wife.


It’s the 1920s, and on a three-year posting with only occasional contact with boatmen who bring supplies, they are far from medical help and the support of family or friends.  Isabel loses one baby after another, and when – just after another stillbirth – a boat washes up onshore with a body and a living baby, she thinks it’s a miracle sent by God.  In the immediacy of caring for the infant, her milk comes in.  The bond is instantaneous.  And Tom, an upright, honourable man (almost too noble, it has to be said) faces the first of many moral dilemmas, and makes the first decision to have powerful repercussions.  He delays making his report.

The novel explores many issues: childlessness; the pain of relinquishing mothers; motherhood and mothering; how different views about right and wrong can eat away at a marriage; how grief can destroy lives and poison relationships.  There is also a refreshing look at the dynamics of small town living: it’s both claustrophobic and supportive.  The people of Partaguese all enjoy a bit of gossip and tongues clack readily, but for the most part people move on from trouble and the destructiveness of grief and anger is suppressed.  But so is culpability: the persecution of an Austrian in the postwar washup is a sudden explosion of revenge for emotion that has no other outlet, and the fact that this event was the catalyst for decisions with dreadful repercussions is never acknowledged.

Stedman teases out the moral ambiguities with skill, shifting the perspective from one character to another as the novel progresses.  My guess is that book groups will argue long and hard about the rights of birth mothers and adoption…

Matt Todd at A Novel Approach reviewed it too.

PS I’ve tagged Stedman as an Australian author but she may have been so long in London that ties to England may claim her instead.  It’s hard to tell from this interview.

Author: M L Stedman
Title: The Light Between Oceans
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2012
ISBN: 9781742755700
Source: Uncorrected Bound Proof copy courtesy of Random House

Fishpond:  The Light Between Oceans


  1. Excellent review, Lisa. I read this book back in January but have held off reviewing it until mid-April when it is published here in the UK. I loved the moral ambiguities in the story and its exploration of guilt and culpability.


    • Thanks, Kim, I’ll link to yours when you publish it:)


  2. You have certainly piqued my interest.


    • Hi Kevin, good to hear from you:)
      Does Canada have a fascination with lighthouses too? Here in Victoria, all along the shipwreck coast there are lighthouses, and many of them are tourist attractions where people are reminded of a time when brave souls survived that long and perilous journey from England, only to be dashed to death on the rocks that guard the coastline, until the lighthouses were built like a chain of lifeguard from west to east.
      I have been to the Cape Leeuwin one too, and been quite awed by the vastness beyond, knowing that there is no land between that point and Africa.
      Perhaps in our frenetic lives we pine for a little solitude and so we romanticise the isolation of lighthouses…


  3. Thanks, I enjoyed reading your review. I finished reading ‘The Light Between Oceans’ last night and absolutely loved it! I reviewed it on my own blog, giving it 5 stars and I’m confident it’s going to be one of my favourite novels of 2012.


    • Hello Tracey, and welcome to chatting about books on ANZ LitLovers. :)
      I went exploring at your blog, and found your review of The Corpse Walker, (which I’ve read too), and I enjoyed your interview with the author of Amongst My Enemies so much that I added it to my Russian novels TBR. (I tried to comment on all three of these posts of yours, but BlogSpot had a hissy fit and made two of them vanish. *frown*)


  4. I read this book over the Christmas holidays and couldn’t put it down. I picked it up because it was set in Australia and had a lighthouse on the cover. OK… so I do judge a book by its cover.
    Thanks so much for this blog Lisa. I’ve visited Australia a number of times and always come back with books from authors that are new to me. Before discovering this blog, I knew little about the literary scene in your country. I knew about the Miles Franklin Award (similar to our Giller Prize in Canada) but that was about it. With your blog I hope to keep up with things so I’m not totally overwhelmed next time I visit AU.


    • Welcome, Mike:) and thanks for dropping by!


  5. I only read your review as far as spoiler alert (thanks for the heads up!) Devon libraries always have a summer read and this year this is the book, so I am only a few pages in and already I have noted a few things to look up via Google!


    • Thanks, Julie, I do try to remember to add the warning!


  6. […] a contrasting view try Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest likes it despite its faults […]


  7. […] into a film, and that was the three-hankie The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman.  See my review here and note that I predicted its future in […]


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