An engrossing story of the choices people make when presented with (several) moral dilemmas, The Light Between Oceans will have you turning the pages well into the wee-small hours. It’s set mainly in the 1920s in both the wild and remote island known as Janus Rock off the south-west tip of Australia, with its steady lighthouse, as well as the coastal town of Point Partaguese, which provides a life-line to the occupants of the lighthouse once every three months. Talk about remote!
Tom, a WWI hero, with the medals to prove it, looks for a quiet life after the war. There were not too many men who had survived the war intact; Tom is one of the lucky ones. After serving on less-remote lighthouses along the country’s east coast, he applies for the job of keeper of Janus Rock. The name Janus, being the Roman God of transitions and beginnings, who is traditionally pictured with two faces, is perfect for the place which looks over two oceans, and for the dichotomy created between the rivals for a little girl’s parentage and love. (I wish I could include here John Olsen’s self-portrait in the guise of Janus that won the Archibald Prize here in Sydney a few years back!)
On his arrival in Point Partaguese Tom meets the direct and feisty Isabel, some years his junior, and although they spend months apart as Tom takes up his duties offshore, they begin to court or ‘walk out together’ as they did in those days. When Isabel tries to ‘make sense’ of Tom and they discuss what they want from life, she says ‘I wish for – don’t laugh – I wish for a good husband and a house full of kids. … I can’t imagine not having children one day, can you?’
Soon Isabel joins Tom on Janus as his wife. At the junction of the Indian and Southern Oceans, it’s a wild place, where storm winds blow the chooks off into the ocean. Tom is an honourable man who has difficulty understanding why he survived the war when so many others didn’t. Not being able to talk about the horrors of war places a distance between them that the upfront Isabel finds difficult to cope with. She then endures three miscarriages, frightening experiences for any woman, and more so in those days and so far from medical assistance and the comfort of family and friends.
Soon after the third loss, a boat washes up on one of the beaches of Janus. In it is a dead man and a crying baby. Tom wants to report it straight away. Isabel, convincing herself that it is clear the mother must be dead, and the baby is a gift from God, suggests to Tom they keep the baby and claim it as theirs (they still haven’t told the world of the recent miscarriage). Cue moral dilemma number one!
Their decision to keep the child they name Lucy (meaning ‘light’), and the resulting actions, set off a chain of events whose consequences they cannot foresee. Herein lies the perfection of the book’s title, for the light between oceans is not just the Janus lighthouse, it’s Lucy, the bub who finds herself in between oceans of love that push and pull at her like the Indian and the Southern Oceans do at Janus. Later Tom and Isabel find out Lucy’s mother is alive. What to do?
Stedman weaves this tale of moral choices together with aplomb. It is the perfect fodder for a book club to test everyone’s reactions to Tom and Isabel’s decisions as well as those of the wider community as the novel opens up to include characters from Point Partaguese.
The reactions to the Great War, from both Tom’s eyes and those parents on the mainland who have lost—in many cases multiple—sons, are rendered with a sensitive touch. The reason for why the boat with the dead man and baby are out to sea is harrowing, one of those small-town secrets that get wiped under the carpet so that everyone can forget.
The descriptions of Janus are wonderful, especially the light itself. When Tom is ‘introduced’ to it, he calls it a beauty as he takes ‘in the giant lens, far taller than himself, atop the rotating pedestal: a palace of prisms like a beehive made from glass.’
And this when Tom enjoys the view from atop the light for the first time:
Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerised by the drop to the ocean below. The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat.
The Light Between Oceans is a compelling debut about the limits of love and parenthood— and forgiveness too. No wonder it made The New York Times bestseller list. The film rights have been snapped up by Dreamworks. And it has been shortlisted for the Best Debut Fiction Award in the 2013 Australian Independent Bookseller Awards.
This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge. That makes it four already—I might have to upgrade my target!
The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)