Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

Have you ever started reading a book that doesn't initially grab you, but somewhere in the rising action you find yourself surprisingly entranced? That's how my reading of M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans began; a bit slow and uncertain. This was a book I bought when it first made a splash in the literary scene, but I didn't actually sit down to read it until a few years later.

This story crept up on me with its stunning sense of isolation introduced through the character of Tom Sherbourne. Tom has returned to Australia after fighting in WWII. I am an admitted fan of all things WWII, especially the exploration of psychological trauma. Tom is haunted by the war, and in an attempt to heal from the experience he accepts a posting at a lighthouse on Janus Rock. Janus is a rocky island completely cut off from civilization. Stedman's use of setting serves as reinforcement of Tom's internal state, but brilliantly Janus also evolves along with the characters. Janus becomes a private sanctuary for Tom and his young, free-spirited wife Isabel who comes to live with him after they are married. The two become the Adam and Eve of Janus, explorers that re-map the island in a way only they can understand; they are hopeful and in love and Janus is the cradle of their happiness.

There is a heartbreaking shift in the story, and really it was this shift that caught me completely by surprise and endeared me to this couple. The scene opens months down the line from their marriage, and Isabel is standing at the graves of all of the babies she has miscarried. It was like a punch in the gut. Her sorrow is so palpable that I felt it leech into my bones, and I ached for Isabel. Janus once again evolves as a setting into an island of loss. Isabel has lost what she wants most and Tom has begun to lose his wife. The toll that grief and their inability to effectively communicate through the pain has on their relationship is portrayed with absolute realism.

But then, a small boat arrives on shore, and in the boat is the dead body of a man and a living baby girl. Tom, a man bound by duty, wants to report the boat and its occupants, but Isabel sees the arrival of the baby as an answer to her prayers. She has recently lost another baby and her emotional and mental health becomes the driving force of the decision that Tom must make. Tom came to Janus and his work in the lighthouse because it was structured, uncomplicated and honorable. In this environment he was able to piece himself back together and build a code of ethics he built for himself after his time in the war. Betraying his duty and breaking his code is the catalyst for the destruction of the very structure that has kept him whole. And yet, he wants to make Isabel happy, he wants to give her the child that she is unable to birth herself.

Tom's love of Isabel drives him to cover-up the existence of the boat by burying the body and not recording the incident in his log. Convincing friends and family that the baby, named Lucy, is their own child isn't difficult since Isabel had been pregnant and no one knew about her most recent miscarriage. Though their life continues on Janus, Tom is never free from the burden of his betrayal of self. He carries it with him even though he falls in love with Lucy and thrives as a father.

After finding out the truth of the identity of the man in the boat and who Lucy really is and who she belongs to, Tom is faced with the hardest decision of his life. Lucy's biological mother is alive and she has gone mad with grief over the loss of her husband and daughter. Tom's guilt and Isabel's emotional greed battle against each other in unspoken resentments. The building crisis in the story all comes down to the decisions these characters must make. Do they do the right thing and face the repercussions for their actions by returning Lucy to her birth mother and relieving the poor woman of her grief? Do they keep Lucy and allow their resentments to grow between them?

The heartbreak attached to these decisions faced by these well-developed characters is supported by their differing perspectives of what is right and what is wrong. There are some big questions posed by the raw emotional ordeal that occurs at the climax of the story: does blood make a mother? does time heal all wounds? what is the right thing in a savage world? does love prevail?

If you can move past the initial slowness of the novel, it is a true treat for anyone interested in the complicated nuances of the human condition when grief causes a splinter in the psyche and love and grace hover farther away than the easy reach of resentment and anger. Our choices shape our lives, and Stedman makes it clear that our choices also define who we are as complex individuals.

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