The Light Between Oceans (2012)
M. L. Stedman
Simon & Schuster 978-1451681758
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This isn’t the sort of novel I generally read. Some would call it “chick lit;” others might dismiss it as “sentimental.” Call it what you wish, but my measure of a good book is one in which an author forces me enjoy a cup of tea the likes of which I’d usually not imbibe.
Travel through Europe or Australasia and even the smallest towns have monuments to the fallen sons of the Great War, as World War One is generally called outside of North America. Call the conflict the final death of innocence–an event so horrifying that few retained enough faith to believe it would be the “war to end all wars,” as Woodrow Wilson promised. The Great War nipped in the bud the flower of sixteen million youths; those who survived were often physically or psychically scarred for life. Australian Tom Sherburne was one such man. Although he escaped bodily harm, he’s haunted by what he’s seen, what he’s done, and the comrades he’s lost. Above all, Sherburne is a moral man who believes in sin and cannot reconcile himself to his role in the carnage. He wonders why he survived when others he considers more heroic and noble did not. He feels so estranged from humanity that he chooses self-imposed exile and becomes a lighthouse keeper, first off the coast of Tasmania and later on Janus, a one-mile square hunk of rock a hundred miles off Australia’s western coast.
Fiction readers will recognize a guilty conscience as a loaded version of Chekov’s gun. The Light Between the Oceans spans the years 1918 to 1950, with emphasis on the middle 1920s. A lighthouse keeper’s life couldn’t be lonelier. Every six months boatmen Ralph and Bluey show up to re-provision the keeper and, once every three years, Tom gets leave in the port town of Partageuse. There he meets Isabel Graysmark, ten years his junior, and they fall for each other. Tom tries valiantly to frighten off “Izzy,” as he thinks Janus too remote for a spirited young woman. He’s wrong about that; once they’re married, Izzy takes to Janus like a koala takes to eucalyptus leaves. The missing piece of her bliss is a baby, and that’s where misfortune deals a heavy blow–two miscarriages and a stillbirth in three years and no doctor within a hundred miles of ocean. The loss of the last child has pushed Izzy close to the edge. And then, a miracle?
In 1926, a boat washes ashore with an odd cargo: a dead man and a live baby. By-the-book Tom wants to report the incident immediately, but Izzy chooses to see a discarded cardigan as proof that the mother drowned, and the delivery of a half-starved babe to her milk-saturated breasts as a gift from God. Janus is a well-named island; it stands where the waters of the Indian Ocean tempestuously mingle with those of the Great Southern Sea. It’s also a metaphor for Tom’s dilemma. Does he please his wife, who has named and begun to raise “Lucy” as her own daughter, or does he do as his conscience commands and report the incident in case there’s a grieving mother somewhere on the mainland? Beacon lights are both comforts to seamen and warnings. Is the “light” between the oceans the glow of Lucy’s radiance, or the flickering of Tom’s conscience? And, when it turns out there is a grieving mother, what does one do about now four-year-old Lucy? Does Tom do the moral thing and alienate his wife and break the hearts of in-laws Bill and Violet who lost both of their sons in the war? Can he give up Lucy? What would you do?
Stedman tugs at the heartstrings as she teases out the intricacies of Tom’s moral crisis and the emotional turmoil of biological mother Hannah (who has sorrows of her own), caregiver Izzy, and family members on both sides. In the middle stands Lucy. What is best for her? Much like the Great War, there doesn’t seem to be any happy ending.
I confess that motherhood tales are not generally on my reading list, but Stedman lured me in. Her descriptions of isolation, lighthouse tending, and survival on the margins are vivid and thought provoking. The moral dilemmas she poses could occupy an ethics class for a week and leave plenty on the table for a debate over gender dynamics. This is M(argot). L. Stedman’s debut novel and it’s (pun intended) an illuminating one.