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The Light Between Oceans by ML StedmanAn 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.

Lovely.

The Light Between Oceans is a compelling debut about the limits of Australian Women Writers 2013 badgelove 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

2012

Vintage

362 pages

ISBN: 9781742755717

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka is an intriguing novel.  The story is narrated by Georgie Sinclair, a mother of two, whose marriage to Rip is on the rocks.  Into her new-found separation comes the elderly Mrs Naomi Shapiro, who lives in Canaan House in abject squalor with seven cats and fights over the red-sticker specials with other pensioners at the local grocery store.  When she has a fall and laid-up in hospital, Georgie is called as her next of kin and very soon our narrator, an aspiring chic-lit author, is drawn into the feline world of this old woman and her strange life.  No sooner has the old woman been placed into hospital has a pair of untrustworthy real estate agents conspired with social services personnel to try to oust Mrs Shapiro from her home and make a huge profit on the deal in the process as it is ripe for  redevelopment.  Standing in their way is Georgie, who faces trouble of sorts at home with her teenage son Ben who is developing into a rabid Christian fundamentalist and is spouted wild, internet-sourced theories of coming Armageddon.  She feels an unavoidable connection to the old woman, and her nosy interest in her past is where the fun begins.

This is the initial set-up for the story and like Lewycka’s wonderfully funny (and Booker long-listed) debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (see my review), there is a collection of laughs here too in her typically black and slapstick forms.  However, for me this early part of the novel didn’t quite reach the heights of her first.  I suspect part of the reason is Georgie’s chic-lit ambitions – we get some very funny drafts of her story entitled The Splattered Heart, but some of the narrative ‘voice’ of the real story comes in the form of this ultra-commercial, chic-lit voice too and made me feel a little queasy.  For example: Georgie begins an affair with one of the unscrupulous agents’ more honest business partners, Mr Diabello, whom she describes thus:

His smile made rugged creases in his craggily handsome cheeks.  The cleft in his square, manly chin dimpled seductively.  His dark and smouldering eyes seemed to gaze right into my soul – or perhaps right into my underwear.

And so on.  Maybe this is so over the top that it is meant to be read as a satire on the drivel that Georgie is trying to pen, but it made me cringe rather than laugh.

Where the story excels is when Georgie delves into the history of Mrs Shapiro, for it soon becomes clear that not is all it seems with the old lady.  Into the mix is thrown a Palestinian handyman, Mr Ali.  He has two teenage Arabic relations who Georgie allows to take up residence in the house with the goal of repairing it after Mrs Shapiro has another fall and is placed into an old persons’ home against her will by the evil social worker, Mrs Goodney.  When Mr Ali recognises a photo of a place in Israel on the wall, we have the beginnings of a great story, for both he and Mrs Shapiro have a past from either side of the Jewish-Palestinian divide.  In beginning to tell Georgie of his story, Mr Ali says, “Of course, everybody knows about the sufferings of the Jews. … Only suffering of Palestinian people nobody knows.”  If this is not enough, we then have an Israeli man, Chaim Shapiro, arrive claiming ownership of the house.  What is his relationship to Mrs Shapiro?  Does he have a rightful claim to the house?  Do any of them?

In the meantime, it is agreed that Chaim and Mrs Shapiro will share the house with the two Arabic youths, despite the mistrust between them, as Georgie noses further and further into the histories of all these characters and the intersections of their histories and peoples.

But can they live together?  Thinking of the articles on adhesives she edits to earn an income, Georgie concludes (p359), “If you could just get the human bonding right, maybe the other details – laws boundaries, constitution – would fall into place.  It was just a case of finding the right adhesive for the adherends.  Mercy.  Forgiveness.  If only it came in tubes.”  To some this will read as a trite over-simplification but Lewycka has dared to dream and find some common-ground where there seems none.  Others may dislike it, but I salute it.  There is a better, more focussed adhesives metaphor shortly thereafter, when we have Georgie’s musings on adhesive ploymerisation (p381):

[It] depends on sharing.  An atom which is short of an electron looks out for another atom that’s got the right sort of electron …  then the atom grabs the electron it needs.  But no theft or nastiness is involved.  The two atoms end up sharing the electron, and that’s what holds all the atoms together in one beautiful long endlessly repeating dance – the beauty of glue!”

The notion of peace is further reinforced when juxtaposed with Georgie’s own family when Ben suffers a seizure and is hospitalised.  We find him surrounded by his sister Stella, Rip and Georgie.  Stella takes her parents to task for their childish fighting, telling her mother, “Doesn’t matter who started it.  We’re fed up of it.”

There are still laughs to be had, including the hilarious end to Canaan House after a BBQ celebrating the DIY-ers’ completion of the ‘penthouse suite’.  But we fortunately have a far more solid and meaningful foundation for them than the initial set-up of the novel hinted at.  The story is perhaps a little overly indulgent in some of the back-stories – some of Georgie’s interaction with her parents might be superfluous for instance.  But most of the seemingly loose ends are tied nicely together by the end.  So it is an odd fish this book.  There is, I imagine, something in it for everyone, which is both a weakness and strength.  It is thoroughly enjoyable and readable, very ‘light’ in terms of literary pretence, perhaps one that women might get more out of in terms of some of the humour.  But I can’t help thinking it could have been even better had the focus been just a little sharper.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141030999

418 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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