The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Scribner; 384 pages; $25).
There are times when I lose myself in a novel. I am certain this has happened to you, too. I disappear into the rhythms and cadence of a good story. The characters I meet become like friends or family members. The settings of these tales are places I have physically never been, yet I could tell you everything about them. These are the stories that stay with me, novels I read and reread over and over again.
The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, a native Australian, is just such a novel. Stedman now lives in London, and her debut proves she is an author to watch. Clear your calendar, because you will not want to do anything else once you begin reading The Light between Oceans.
Stedman sets her story primarily on the formidable isolated island of Janus Rock, off the western coast of Australia. A lighthouse station, built in 1889, sits on the island like a sentinel. Like the god the island is named for, Janus Rock “looks in the direction of two different oceans, down to the South Pole and up to the Equator.” The god Janus has two faces, “back to back.” The island also has two faces: beautiful one minute and ugly the next.
For a lightkeeper, life on Janus Rock can be a nightmare. Stedman illustrates the utter isolation he can feel, especially when alone on the island. Often, the only visitors are the supply boat. It is a lonely existence. So much so that Trimble Docherty, the light keeper, went crazy and had to be replaced. Enter Tom Sherbourne and, later, his wife, Isabel. Tom takes over the light. The job is difficult–difficult enough to make or break people and make or break marriages.
One day, a small boat washes ashore on Janus Rock. Inside is a dead man and a living baby. Isabel believes the child is a “gift from God.” She urges her husband not to signal the authorities, or at least not yet. Give it a day or two, she begs.
The appearance of the baby is a prayer answered for Isabel. In heartbreaking and affecting passages, Stedman describes Isabel’s two miscarriages and one stillbirth. I was overcome to see Isabel wash the body of her dead child. She is a broken woman, longing for a child. Suddenly, one appears out of nowhere. Isabel wants to raise the baby as hers and Tom’s. The mother, Isabel thinks, must have drowned before the boat landed on the island. She wants this baby girl more than anything else in the whole world. Stedman writes, “In a place far beyond awareness, the flood of chemicals which until so recently had been preparing her body for motherhood, conspired to engineer her feelings, guide her muscles.” Isabel’s instincts “rushed back to life.” This fact is not lost on her husband.
Tom is Stedman’s strongest character, even more so than Isabel. A former World War I soldier, Tom is serious and steadfast. “The idea of honor,” for Tom, “was a kind of antidote to some of the things he’d lived through.” A meticulous record keeper, Tom records everything in his logbook. It is part of his job. “A lightkeeper accounts for things,” Stedman gently reminds us. “Every article in the light station is listed, stored, maintained, inspected. No item escapes official scrutiny.” He is not one to take liberties with the logbook. Tom, in fact, “relishes the language” [of the logbook]. “When he thinks back to the chaos, the years of manipulating facts, or the impossibility of knowing, let alone describing, what the bloody hell was going on while explosions shattered the ground all around him, he enjoys the luxury of stating a simple truth.” Tom is not a man to break rules.
Isabel throws Tom’s honor in his face. “But what are those rules for? They’re to save lives!” When Tom says he just cannot lie about the dead man and the baby washing ashore, Isabel explodes: “How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.” Tom finally acquiesces, in part because he feels responsible for the miscarriages and stillbirth. He is the reason they are on the rock, after all. He does not mention the dead man and baby in the log; instead, he buries the body of the man and pushes the boat back out to sea.
Isabel and Tom raise the baby as their own. Tom, though, carries around such guilt. One day, it is abundantly clear, he will no longer be able to live with what he has done. One day, it will be too much for him to bear. One day, the secret will come out.
The Light between Oceans moves at a fast clip. Although Stedman’s two main characters are Tom and Isabel, she also introduces other characters into the story. Her ability to get us into their heads is masterful and even unexpected, especially when it comes to the struggles of a grieving mother.
Honestly, I felt like I was complicit in Tom and Isabel’s crime. I fervently hoped they would keep the baby. I urged Tom to lie. I felt as if I were aiding and abetting criminals. I rationalized with Tom; I sympathized with Isabel. But then I felt the guilt, just like Tom. Stedman drags the reader into this moving story and does not let go.
I miss Janus Rock. I miss Tom and Isabel. If you get caught up in Stedman’s debut, you will miss them too. Stedman seduces the reader into helping cover up a crime. The Light between Oceans mesmerizes the reader. It truly does. What is right and what is wrong? Is everything black and white? Or do grey areas really exist? In a web of lies, can the truth ever come out? The Light between Oceans is like a siren’s song–beautiful and impossible to resist.