"The Light Between Oceans"

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I feared a romance, a sappy one, but am happy to report the romance is only a part of this story. I read it because it's my book club's June selection, and because it's about an island. I can't help myself. I'm a sucker for islands and stories about them. It's an obsession really.

The setting is the tiny island of Janus Rock off the coast of Australia, where Tom Sherbourne is the lighthouse keeper. The isolation and the tedious work make it a perfect place for Tom to find balance again after experiencing the death and destruction of WWI as a soldier. There are no roads on the island and Tom's is the only house, but he gets leave every two or three years and there is a supply boat that comes occasionally.

After one of his leaves, he brings back a young wife, Isabel. A few years later, while tending the grave of her own stillborn baby, she hears the cry of another one. A man, dead, and a baby, still alive, have washed up on shore in a small boat. Isabel, suspecting the dead man to be the child's father and the mother to have been lost overboard, convinces Tom not to report it right away. As each day passes, it seems more right to care for her and give her a good home than it does to take her to the mainland, possibly to a life with no parents at all.

When the baby - they call her Lucy - is two years old, they return to the mainland on leave and they begin to see that their decision has some far-reaching consequences. The fragile little family they've so carefully bound together begins to unravel.

There are no real "bad guys" here. Mistakes are made, but not with intent to harm. Very human people make very bad decisions and people suffer. Everyone suffers. There are questions to which there are no good answers because what helps one will hurt another and we care about all of them. A choice must be made between this good thing, and this other good thing, and either choice will leave a trail of unspeakable pain. What would you or I do in those circumstances? Isn't it wonderful when a book takes you to that place?

I'm always fascinated with first lines and found a loaded one in this book:

"On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross."  

This sentence sets you up for the whole book. When you read "miracle" something in you lifts because you know something good is about to happen. Miracles are always good. Lots of impossibly bad things happen but no one calls them miracles. That word is preserved for the impossibly good things. Then a fraction of a second later you read where she is: "kneeling at the cliff's edge". Something in you senses that whatever is about to happen is dangerous. She's at the cliff's edge in more ways than one. Then, she is tending the "small, newly made driftwood cross". That thing in you that sensed joy, then danger, now senses grief. It's a "small" cross, "newly made", so the loss was probably a child and probably recent. All those emotions have been triggered in the reader in that one opening sentence and moves you into the story with a bit of excitement, a bit of trepidation, and some compassion. The trepidation increases three sentences later when she whispers over the grave:

"...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
Somehow we know that temptation is exactly what is coming.

There were some weak spots in the writing, and I found the flashbacks to Tom's past were too long sometimes and left me wishing we could get back to the present, but it is a good, very good story. This is the author's first novel so there's no backlist to greedily order from. I must wait for more. I suspect not every novel she writes will be set on an island, sigh, but her story-telling ability is wonderful so I'm looking forward to whatever she does next.

This one is a most definite recommendation. I loved it.  


Kelly said...

Her writing was my favorite part of the book. At times the story was slow for me but I still recommend this to people because of the gorgeous writing. Love it!!

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