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Review: The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman
Scribner, 2012. 343 pp. $25

Tom Sherbourne returns to his native Australia after the First World War deeply disturbed by what he saw and did and seeking solitude. He has nothing and no one to hold onto, and he finds what he thinks is the perfect job, tending a lighthouse on a forlorn island off the Australian coast. There, no one will ask him about his past, and his exacting, meticulous duties will keep him busy for the months that stretch between brief shore leaves.

Tom wonders why he survived the war when so many others didn’t or came home physically or emotionally maimed. But that’s not the only trauma to trouble his dreams. His mother left home when he was a young boy–or did his father, a cold tyrant with no access to any feelings except anger, throw her out? Either way, both have passed from Tom’s life, and his brother Cecil, the favored son due to inherit the family business, is equally unapproachable in Tom’s eyes, though it’s not clear why. But it’s enough to know that Tom Sherbourne has no family to speak of, or to.

Supplies being unloaded for South Solitary Island lighthouse, Australia, 1946, unknown photographer (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, on shore leave, he meets Isabelle Graysmark, a spirited, adventurous young woman, and they’re immediately attracted. Tom, much older and badly bruised, distrusts the vulnerability where tender feelings lead, and she practically has to convince him to marry her. He dares hope that Izzy will be his reward, however undeserved, for having survived a miserable childhood and the war. For her part, Izzy believes implicitly that she couldn’t have found a more loyal, steadfast, and loving husband, or a more nurturing father for their children. She only wishes he’d tell her what happened to him before they met.

To their delight, Izzy becomes pregnant almost immediately but miscarries–and again, and again. Each time, she blames herself, and what’s worse, she can’t understand his reaction. He aches for her, he’s sad and sorry, but he’s not devastated for himself. He cherishes their lives together as the first tenderness he’s ever known, a gift that many soldiers serving under him never got the chance to receive. He understands what she doesn’t, that life is often unfair, and that there’s no malign intent involved or blame to pass around, only bad luck and circumstance. But Izzy thinks his gratitude for what they have means that he’s cold and hurtful, incapable of feeling. And one night, when a rowboat lands near the lighthouse carrying a dead man and a young infant, the Sherbournes make a desperate decision that will mark their lives and others’.

The Light Between Oceans is an accomplished novel, and Stedman’s first. At its best, the narrative touches the lyrical and depth of insight and makes them one. Consider Tom’s first view of the island, before he meets Izzy:

Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerized by the drop to the ocean crashing against the cliffs directly below. The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat. At the other end of the island, a row of immense boulders created a break against the surf and left the water inside it as calm as a bath. He had the impression he was hanging from the sky, not rising from the earth. Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all. It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.

It’s a good novelist who can make beautiful sentences draw the reader into a character’s inner life without calling attention to themselves. And in focusing her characters on the most primal attachment, that for a child, Stedman evokes tremendous power from a relatively simple story. I say relatively because she requires more coincidence and suspension of disbelief than I like, but once you get past that, there’s no denying the passions or the moral issues involved.

I have a harder time getting around Izzy’s character. I like how the spontaneous girlishness hides other, dangerous levels, but–without giving away too much–I think she becomes unglued, and by the time I finished the book, I didn’t like her much. Liking a main character isn’t requisite, but I wanted to feel more sympathy for her than I did, and I might have, had she struggled with the momentous decision that drives the narrative or consider how it might affect someone else. Instead, she sets her mind and seldom thinks about it again–refuses to, even.

All the same, Stedman’s a very good writer, and The Light Between Oceans will make you think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.