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Book Review: The Light Between Oceans, ML Stedman

I am not sure why I picked up this book, but from memory, I think it was the title that drew me. There was something haunting as well as inviting about it, something liminal. Discovering it was a debut novel, ostensibly about a returned WWI veteran come lighthouse-keeper by Australian born Margot L Stedman only increased my curiosity.

I was not disappointed.

The Light Between Oceans is a beautiful, moving tale of Tom Sherbourne a man whose war service and the unspeakable horrors he has endured have made him quiet, repressed and unable to express his feeling with ease. Grateful for the solitude lighthouse keeping affords him, he moves from post to post as a relief keeper, never staying in one place too long. When he’s posted to Port Partageuse to relieve the last keeper (who it turns out went mad) on the remote Janus Rock, 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia, situated between the Indian and Southern Oceans, he is able to enjoy the isolation such a distant locale affords – that is, until he meets the passionate, day-dreaming Isabel who awakens him to the joys of feeling again.

Writing to each other, they maintain contact and a slow and welcome romance develops into a relationship. But when Tom takes his new wife, Izzy, to this wild outpost of Janus Rock, the idyllic life Tom and Isabel thought they would have, one where they create a perfect family, unravels.

One day, a few years into the posting and after terrible personal losses, a boat washes up on the shores of Janus Rock. Inside the boat are two people – one dead, the other very much alive. It’s the decisions that Tom and Izzy make as a consequence of the boat’s passengers, the rift this tears between duty and desire, right and wrong, need and responsibility, that change their lives and that of others for years to come.

Without spoiling the story, this novel is about the choices we make and how we live with those. It’s about truth and lies, about deception and facing reality and how we deal with these. It’s about faith in others, trust, courage and the ties of family, the love that gently and cruelly binds and which, when tested, can also shred us asunder. It’s also about grief, loss and how the past can impact upon the present – if we allow it – how we’re shaped by all our choices, good and bad. In a sense, it’s also about free will and determinism and part of the tension and joy in reading the novel arises from discovering how each character justifies their actions, which side of these binaries they identify with.

Sublimely written, poetic in its intensity and frailty, this novel places terrible choices into complex contexts and, in doing so, creates characters who are fully realised, noble, sad and capable of great strength and a depth of understanding about the actions of others as well as wilful blindness to the suffering of others. Told over a period of years, where era and place are exquisitely evoked, it moves slowly at times, at others, the tide of story surges and carries you forwards into spaces you don’t always want to go. As much a character in the tale as any of the humans, the ocean functions as both a complement and a counterpoint to the narrative.  Just as the ocean is unpredictable, so too are the main personalities all of whom have the capacity to do wondrous and terrible things. Sympathies are torn, questions about  what constitutes justice are challenged over and over.

I cared so much about each and everyone of the characters – at times, I adored them, at others, I was frustrated and saddened by their decisions, but I always understood why they acted the way they did.

This is a simply beautiful story that deserves the praise and wide audience it’s receiving. A stunning debut from a new voice that I can’t wait to hear again.

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