I’ve been putting off reviewing The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman for nearly a week trying to wrap my brain around how to express what this novel is, and what my opinions are about it.
The Light Between Oceans came to my attention from Valyruh’s review as well as from Goodreads Best of 2012 voting (it won for best Historical Fiction). I waited rather patiently for it to arrive from my library and only started to get truly anxious to read it once I saw Jen K’s five-star review, since she and I agree on many, many books. In numerous ways I agree with her review of the book. But, when I initially finished the book I only gave it four stars as compared to her five.
The titular light is Janus, the lighthouse located on the southwestern coast of Australia sitting between the Indian and Southern oceans. It is on this small island that the reader learns the tale of Tom Sherbourne and his wife, Isabel. Tom returns from the Great War a broken man, withdrawing from society. He finds refuge working on the lights, having minute but immeasurably important tasks which physically remove him from civilization. It is on his way to Janus to serve as a relief keeper that Tom meets Isabel and their paths become intertwined. Isabel brings Tom out of his shell and they build a life together on Janus, but after suffering a series of miscarriages, Isabel’s grief and the arrival of a rowboat with a dead man and an infant, Tom makes a decision for the sake of his wife that is morally and ethicaly suspect.
This is Stedman’s debut novel and it is a exquisitely delivered. The descriptive language and vacillation between third person and first person storytelling make the story simultaneously intimate and overarching. At its center this is a novel about the moral and ethical boundaries we will bend for love, and what it means to create a family, and how families are both incredibly fragile and strong beyond measure. In her review Valyruh points out that “As many reviewers have commented, this is a sad tale. But it is a riveting one, forcing us to reflect on the morally ambiguous choices good people–like ourselves–make every day without thought of the consequences. Stedman’s writing is compelling, her settings gorgeously described, and her characters have histories and embody all the strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness of everyman.” The novel is inherently sad, and that is perhaps my greatest complaint against it. There is just so much pain, but none of it is blown beyond the proportions of the plot and all of the decisions and actions of the characters fit into who they are. The reader is never left to question why they do what they do, only to fear for what comes next.
The pacing in the novel works especially well, we know from the very beginning the Sherbournes’ big secret, and we spend the rest of the novel tracking how they arrive at that point and how they proceed with their lives. The reader gets swept up like one of Janus’ crashing waves and we see disaster looming on the horizon, waiting for the storm to breach the shore. When it does, the story turns on end. Stedman performs a high wire act of great skill towards the conclusion of the novel, and in the final few chapters gives us a satisfying narrative which was more subtle and certainly more unexpected than I’d dared hoped.
I find for CBR5 the difference between four and five stars to be purely a matter of heart. If I LOVE the book and want to shout that love from the rooftops it gets five stars, if I think it’s fantastic but it doesn’t pull at my heartstrings, or if I don’t find myself aching to push it into the hands of everyone I know then it gets a four star rating. This book had me in LOVE with its characters from the moment go and pulled at every bit of my heart but I’m having a hard time actively inviting anyone else into the heartache this book delivers. Read at your own risk, but know that this is a masterfully crafted novel.