28 February, 2015

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Book review

Doubleday 2012. ISBN 978-0-857-52100-2. 362 pages

The Light Between Oceans is set in Western Australia in 1918–1930 with an epilogue in 1950. All the characters and events are fictional.

Tom Sherbourne, veteran of the First World War, is now keeper of the lighthouse on lonely Janus Rock, situated a hundred miles off the south-western coast of Australia where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean meet. The steady rhythm of tending to the light begins to heal the scars of war, and when Tom falls in love with the beautiful and lively Isabel and brings her to the island as his wife, their happiness seems complete. But Isabel, who longs for a child, suffers a series of miscarriages, and the repeated tragedies take a heavy psychological toll on her. So when a rowing boat containing a dead man and a healthy baby washes up on Janus, to Isabel it seems like a miraculous answer to her prayers. Tom knows he should report it – somewhere there may be a mother grieving for the lost baby in the boat – but can he bring himself to deprive his beloved Isabel of the child she yearns for?

This book was described to me as ‘a real tear-jerker’ and there are certainly some emotional scenes. I can’t describe the central emotional dilemma without spoilers so I won’t say what happens – only that good people, all acting with good intentions, manage to create a situation that is bound to be heartbreaking for somebody and might well be a tragedy for everybody. At the heart of the novel is the question: given that this impossible situation has arisen, what to do for the best? Readers may not necessarily agree with the various characters’ answers to that question – and indeed some will probably find some of them incomprehensible or even reprehensible. But the novel does an excellent job of making the people and their conflicts feel very real.

All the main characters are fully developed as individuals with their own personalities, their own vulnerabilities, hopes and fears, and a mix of appealing and not-so-appealing characteristics. For example, Isabel’s liveliness, irreverence and youthful enthusiasm make her attractive – I can see why the older and more reserved Tom falls head-over-heels for her – but she also has a childish egotism that leads her to some distinctly unpleasant actions. Tom’s sense of right and duty, and his desire to protect Isabel and make her happy, are appealing, but his half-baked attempts to do the right thing without hurting Isabel seem ill-thought-out at best – it’s clear that he did not intend to be cruel, and yet it’s hard to see what other effect it could have had.

The other characters are equally distinctive, from the captain and crew of the store boat that is the only link between Janus Rock and the mainland to the humane local police sergeant.

Landscapes are also vividly described, from the isolation of Janus Rock surrounded only by ocean and stars to the mainland forests with their populations of exotic birds and animals. Western Australia was totally unknown to me before I started reading this book, so I had only the descriptions on the page to create a picture in the imagination. Readers who know the area will be able to assess whether the descriptions are accurate; all I can say is that they successfully created a ‘virtual world’ to step into. I have no idea whether Janus Rock really exists or not, but it certainly exists within the pages of the novel.

There’s a useful map at the front of the book for readers who, like me, are unfamiliar with the geography of Western Australia. As almost all the events take place either on Janus or in the small mainland town of Partageuse the map isn’t really needed to follow most of the book, though it was useful for me to be able to look up the location of the epilogue.

Compelling tale of people caught in an emotional and moral dilemma of their own making, where there are no easy solutions and no right answers.