Published: 31 July 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
A captivating, beautiful, and stunningly accomplished debut novel that opens in 1918 Australia - the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who make one devastating choice that forever changes two worlds.
Australia, 1926. After four harrowing years fighting on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns home to take a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby's cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom's judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.
M. L. Stedman's mesmerizing, beautifully written debut novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel's decision to keep this "gift from God." And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another's tragic loss.
When Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia from fighting in the First World War, his attempts to settle into civilian life are made more difficult because of his PTSD and the trauma he suffered as a child.
When Tom gets a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island, he finally starts to find some semblance of peace in the quiet and orderly existence. However, when Tom returns to the mainland, he meets Isabel and they marry despite Tom’s fears Isabel won’t like life on the island. Although younger than Tom, Isabel seems content, making it seem like a grand adventure, however Isabel’s dream of having a child is shattered when she has a series of miscarriages that begin to take their toll.
As Tom fears for Isabel’s sanity, the couple come across a boat washed ashore and are astounded when they discover the body of man with a baby who is still alive. Believing her prayers have finally been answered, Isabel insists on keeping the infant and persuades Tom not to report the incident against his better judgement. When the boat arrives with their supplies, the men aboard believe Isabel’s child has come early since they are unaware her most recent pregnancy ended in another miscarriage and they spread the happy news to the mainland. As Isabel bonds with the child, Tom finds himself becoming increasingly trapped in a situation that he knows is wrong but he can’t tell the truth because it would destroy his wife.
Two years later, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland with their daughter, and Lucy meets her extended family for the first time. As Isabel plans their daughter’s baptism, Tom finally learns the truth about Lucy and unable to ignore the heartache of her real mother, he writes her an anonymous letter telling her of her husband’s death and that her baby girl is still alive. However, Tom’s letter sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually tear apart a community, as well as Tom’s family.
The Light Between Oceans is one of those books that seems to have been around for ages and read by everyone but me so I decided to read it just before Christmas. Reading a book that is so popular always makes me nervous though because I go into it with such high expectations and worry I’m going to be left disappointed. Was I disappointed? Yes and no. While the writing itself is beautifully descriptive, the novel is primarily let down by the plot which is far too predictable and convoluted. As soon as baby Lucy is discovered on the island, you just know Isabel is not going to give her up despite her protests to the contrary and she emotionally blackmails Tom into going along with it.
While Tom and Isabel are on the island, the story of a premature birth works well for them because they are so isolated from the rest of the world and for the next two years, the only people they see are the men in the supply boat who pass on messages from the mainland. Incredibly, Isabel receives no medical attention through any of her miscarriages and the baby never sees a doctor in the first two years of her life despite supposedly being born premature. I know this book is set in the 1920s but surely someone should’ve raised a few eyebrows about the practicalities of having babies on a remote island with no one to help, or even if it is a suitable place for a married couple to settle.
While Tom is actually a good man who grows to loves Lucy just as much as Isabel, he is the only one who continues to have pangs of conscience while Isabel becomes ever more possessive of Lucy. When Tom tells Isabel the truth about Lucy’s parentage, she feels no remorse whatsoever and irrationally believes it is her right to keep the child as she can’t have any others. Isabel’s subsequent actions make her a thoroughly unlikeable character and any sympathy I may have had for her in the beginning quickly evaporated.
It is another three years before the truth about Lucy becomes public knowledge and by that time, Lucy is five years old so when she is taken away from the only parents she has ever known, the scenes are heart wrenching. Stedman actually does a great job of examining the issue from all sides, as Lucy’s real mother, Hannah, has to come to terms with the fact she doesn’t know her own child and struggles to deal with her trauma. While Tom is busy falling on his own sword to keep Isabel safe, she is busy pushing the blade in deeper in revenge for his part in her losing Lucy. Fortunately, Tom has some good people around him who know there is more to the story than meets the eye and they urge him to see sense.
By this point, I was starting to get bored with the situation as Tom continued to be passive and Isabel undeserving of his love and the closing chapters just seemed to go on and on and on. In fact, there were a lot of passages that could’ve easily been cut from the story to make it tighter. Overall, the book was a frustrating read and Tom deserved better than to be stuck with Isabel.