Set in Western Australia, The Light Between Oceans is a heart-wrenching story. Tom Sherbourne, an Australian WW1 hero turns to lighthouse keeping on his return from the war and meets and marries a local girl, Isabel, who breathes life back into his heart. Though happy, they suffer three miscarriages. When a boat washes onto their island with a dead man and a tiny baby inside, their simple lives become awash with moral and emotional dilemmas.
Such a story is gripping enough but no summary can do justice to how well M. L. Stedman explores the complexities of human experience. It’s the kind of novel that gets you weeping, but in empathy rather than for sentiment. The language of the novel flows with an ease many writers would like to achieve. It is beautiful but clear, adept but not showy. There is great subtlety of feeling and expression. Even though lighthouses allow for all those beautiful plays of light and metaphor – no man is an island, though several of the men in the novel do their best to stand as beacons to others in treacherous waters – Stedman never takes it too far.
In a way, marooning a family on a lighthouse island, not much more than a rock, allows Stedman to explore the family unit in isolation. It gives the novel a feeling of timelessness, a relevance that ripples out over the oceans. Families, individuals, often like to imagine their private lives owe nothing to society, that private decisions have no impact on others but The Light Between Oceans magnifies the falsehood of such imaginings.
Through all of the emotional drama, the landscape, the flora and fauna, the wildlife, the weather of that corner of Western Australia is depicted with a precision that takes you there. And all of these aspects – character, story, setting, language, social commentary – create a book with very wide appeal. It is an impressive achievement.
Though you may well have read this novel – it has been on bestseller lists for some time and was Richard and Judy’s summer read last year – if you haven’t, I urge you to give it a go. The Light Between Oceans works on the beach as well as in the library. I can’t wait to read her next one.
Next week I’m reading In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield and following that, The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Do keep your comments and suggestions coming.