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“On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below.”
From the opening lines of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, I was captivated by her sumptuous prose and engrossed in her exceedingly genuine main characters, Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel (Izzy) Graysmark. We’re introduced to them on a life-changing day before Stedman backtracks to Tom’s life eight years earlier and reveals how he became a lighthouse keeper, where he met Isabel and what brought them to this place.
I love stories that are set on or near water and there’s always been something mysterious and romantic about lighthouses, that je ne sais quois being something that Stedman was able to articulate in a most alluring fashion. I wanted to know how a marriage could survive in the isolated confines of an island lighthouse on the coast of Western Australia in the 1920s which is why I chose to read this New York Times Bestseller. I wasn’t at all disappointed. I could smell the ocean breeze, taste the salty air, feel the rhythm of the waves, and see the way the light was magnified from the lighthouse’s lens over the water. The romantic nature of Tom & Izzy’s island life was palpable. I fell in love with the story and didn’t want it to end.
Their newlywed life on Janus Rock in 1922 is at first idyllic as inquisitive Izzy enjoys discovering everything there is to know about her new home and her husband’s job. “On the Lights, you account for every single day. You write up the log, you report what’s happened, you produce evidence that life goes on.” A lighthouse keeper must keep not only a spotless station, but faultless records, as it’s a government appointed position that is held to the highest standards. After four years at war where “right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some,” Tom seeks peace and simplicity and can’t believe that this lovely young woman is happy to live alone with him on the islet where the supply boat (helmed by Ralph and Bluey) only arrives once a season and shore leave to Point Partageuse is granted only every other year.
Tom and Izzy are blissfully happy and it’s not long before they try to have a family. As is often the case for the most deserving parents, this couple is unfairly dealt emotional blow after blow as Izzy suffers three miscarriages over several years. When one day a small boat washes up on their shore carrying a dead man and a perfectly healthy baby girl, we completely understand why Izzy, in her grief, chooses to make the decision to keep the baby and raise her as her own. She begs Tom to bury the man and to stay silent so that they can give Lucy the life she deserves. We can’t blame her for her argument and feel great empathy for her when her choice comes back to haunt her in the most dreadful way.
A couple of years pass and one day Tom, Izzy and Lucy are together on the mainland visiting Izzy’s parents who are ecstatic about their new granddaughter, when they hear about a haunted woman named Hannah Roennfeldt whose husband and baby daughter were lost at sea and who couldn’t be anyone other than Lucy’s biological mother. Tom realizes that he’s met Hannah before and his guilt over keeping their secret becomes so unbearable for him that he makes a decision that almost destroys his life. However, all the lines between right and wrong are blurred as we find justification for both Izzy and Tom’s sins while at the same time feeling great compassion for Hannah.
This is a wholly satisfying read in every sense. The protagonists’ character development is flawless and secondary characters are decisive, if not fully realized. The Light Between Oceans is intellectually, psychologically and emotionally captivating and asks some very tough questions. How can we live with ourselves if we keep shocking secrets? How do we rationalize our choices in an unfair world? How can you make a decision in which everyone loses? Is the best mother always the biological one?
Equally quixotic and tragic, M.L. Stedman has succeeded in delivering a masterpiece of a debut novel with The Light Between Oceans. I can’t thank Simon & Schuster Canada enough for sending me a copy of this book to review! It’s a must read and I greatly anticipate reading Stedman’s future work.