After hearing so many rave reviews of The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman, I was thrilled when my neighborhood book group chose it for our January book. It lived up to my high expectations – I really loved this in-depth character study centered on a moral dilemma and set in a unique place.
The Light Between the Oceans takes place mostly at a lighthouse on an isolated square mile of land, 100 miles off the coast of southwestern Australia. Tom, a kind man who has been permanently emotionally scarred by his experiences in World War I, is the lighthouse keeper here, healing his wounds in the isolation and quiet of the tiny island. His isolation doesn’t last too long, though, because on shore leave and through letters, he becomes close to Isabel, a young woman who is full of life but who also suffered loss during the war when her two brothers were killed. The two eventually fall in love and marry, and Isabel comes to live with Tom on Janus Rock.
The moral dilemma (well, there are several, but the main one) comes when a grieving Isabel and Tom, who have lost 3 babies to miscarriage and stillbirth, find a baby who has drifted to their shores in a dinghy. The baby is alive, though the man with her – presumably her father – is dead when the boat arrives. Isabel sees the baby as a miracle, a gift from God, but Tom’s sense of duty tells him they must report the baby and the dead man to the authorities. Against his better judgment, he agrees to keep the child as their own when he sees how quickly his brokenhearted and beloved wife has bonded with her. But, of course, their actions have consequences.
All of us in my book group agreed that this novel is beautifully written, with descriptive prose that makes you feel the wind on your face:
From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an endless carpet below the cliffs. On days like this it seemed so solid she had the impression she could walk to Madagascar in a journey of blue upon blue. The other side of the island looked back, fretful, toward the Australian mainland nearly a hundred miles away, not quite belonging to the land, yet not quite free of it, the highest of a string of undersea mountains that rose along the ocean floor like teeth along a jagged jaw bone, waiting to devour any innocent ships in their final dash for harbor.
I also loved this story’s real and likable characters and its thought-provoking nature – we had plenty to talk about in book group! Even though you know that what Isabel and Tom are doing is wrong, a part of you is happy for them and wants things to work out for them. I love that kind of moral ambiguity in a novel because it is real. As one character says, “Sometimes life turns out hard, Isabel. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.” In fact, that was the only complaint among our group – two people felt the book was too melodramatic and that too many bad things happened. The other twelve of us, though, got swept up in the flow of the story and went along for the ride…and a wild, exciting ride it was.