The Light Between Oceans is M. L. Stedman’s 2012 award-winning debut novel. It is set in Western Australia where the author was born and raised, and is a well-written and heart-wrenching story.
Without giving away too much of the plot…the story takes place in the years after The Great War and centres around Tom Sherbourne, a young man who becomes a lighthouse keeper upon his return from active service. Memories of the war haunt him and he struggles with the fact that so many others did not return, or did so maimed and psychologically ruined. In many respects he is able to pick up his life again but his choice to be a lighthouse keeper is influenced by his desire for a solitary life, a direct result of both his unsettled upbringing and the trauma of war.
Then he meets Isabel, a young woman ten years younger than himself, and she has made up her mind that she wants to marry him.
Well, they do marry and go to live at Janus Rock, a fictitious, remote island off the coast of south-west Western Australia where their only contact with the outside world is the supply boat that visits the island four times a year from Point Partageuse (a fictitious town).
Lighthouse keepers were required to keep meticulous records in a logbook – visitors to the island, wreckage from the sea, every significant event at or near the lighthouse, whether it was a passing ship or a problem with the lighthouse’s apparatus – it was a legal requirement to document those events straight away.
One day in 1926, something occurs that doesn’t get documented. Tom is an honourable man but out of concern for Isabel’s fragile emotional state, he makes a decision that leads to long-term tragic consequences.
The Light Between Oceans is a sensitive story that explores moral choices and the deceitfulness of the human heart. It shows that our decisions do not only impact our own lives but have repercussions for those around us; that our emotions are not always reliable and that we can reason away just about anything if we lean on them alone.
This is the first time I’ve read anything by this author and I was impressed by her style of writing and descriptive ability. The historical and technical details about lighthouses and the work of lighthouse keepers were quite fascinating, even for this very non-technically minded woman, and the portrayal of the problems encountered by returned servicemen and their families was handled brilliantly.
The only negative for me was the profanity which became more frequent towards the latter part of the book, although it’s not out of character for the times, or for some people going through the type of circumstances and pressures described.
A very worthwhile book and one of the best written modern books I’ve read in a long time.
Tom’s comment about his war service:
‘Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.’
The impact of the war:
Throughout its infancy, the unspoken belief in Partageuse was that real hints happened elsewhere…
Other towns in the West had known things different, of course: Kalgoorlie, for example, hundreds of miles inland, had underground rivers of gold crusted by desert…
The world wanted what Kalgoorlie had.
…Then in 1914 things changed. Partageuse found that it too had something the world wanted. Men. Young men. Fit men. Men who spent their lives swinging an axe or holding a plough and living it hard. Men who were the prime cut to be sacrificed on tactical altars a hemisphere away.
The author has a nice way with similes and other figures of speech:
And Janus Rock, linked only by the store boat four times a year, dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.
‘Tom Sherbourne. Pleased to meet you,’ Tom replied, putting out his hand.
The older man looked at it absently for a moment before remembering what the gesture meant, and gave it a peremptory tug, as if testing whether the arm might come off.
Something solid. He must turn to something solid, because if he didn’t, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast. That was the only thing that got him through four years of blood and madness: know exactly where your gun is when you doze for ten minutes in your dugout; always check your gas mask; see that your men have understood their orders to the letter. You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is speculation.
Regulations require that each Sunday he hoist the ensign and he does, first thing. He raises it too when any ‘man o’ war’, as the rules put it, passes the island. He knows keepers who swear under their breath at the obligation, but Tom takes comfort from the orderliness of it. It is a luxury to do something that serves no practical purpose: the luxury of civilisation.
Other blokes might take advantage, but to Tom, the idea of honour was a kind of antidote to some of the things he lived through.
Thanks to Sherry at Semicolon Blog for mentioning this book. I’d heard of the title but I don’t often read modern fiction and probably wouldn’t have picked this up if Sherry hadn’t said how much she enjoyed it.