Last 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.
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…
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
Source: Uncorrected Bound Proof copy courtesy of Random House
Fishpond: The Light Between Oceans