Book Club Review: The Light Between Oceans (Dec. 6, 2012)

The Light Between Oceans:  blog submitted by Cindy Bushey


Zion’s readers were transported back in time and down under for this month’s selection, The Light Between Oceans, by novice author M. L. Stedman.  We meet Tom Sherbourne, a veteran of World War I desperately searching for a way to deal with the horrors he experienced on the battlefield and his guilt at having survived.  As a lighthouse keeper on the remote island of Janus, Tom finds solace in the daily routine of tedious work needed to keep the light operating at peak efficiency.  With no other human contact, the silence and stark beauty of the island allow him to open his mind and senses to nature and return to a balanced mental equilibrium.  However, during a brief shore leave, this equilibrium is upset by saucy Isabel who quickly becomes his wife and moves to Janus with Tom.  Isabel brings joy back to Tom’s life, and they both thrive on the island.

Their idyll is marred by two miscarriages and a still-born baby.  Isabel teeters on the edge of an abyss of despair when the ocean delivers a small boat with a dead man and a live baby.  In her precarious mental state, Isabel sees God’s hand in the arrival of this child and persuades Tom that they should claim it as their own.  As little Lucy is sheltered  in this private cocoon with loving parents, it is difficult to envision the far-reaching consequences of this decision.  Rifts begin to form in Tom and Isabel’s relationship as Tom struggles with the morality of their situation.  A shore leave suddenly reveals the other life into which Lucy was born, and Tom and Isabel are confronted with their choice and its repercussions.  The subsequent choices by them and other characters as their house of cards comes tumbling down make for a gripping read.

A native Aussie, Ms. Stedman delightfully described her island and mainland.  Our readers could easily imagine the remoteness of Janus and the vast distances of the ocean that could at times be serene and light and at others dark and roiled.  With the light and dark sides of her characters skillfully depicted, the author used that theme throughout the book.  From the title to the imposing and towering presence of the lighthouse, Ms. Stedman wove currents of dark and light through the pages.  The lighthouse itself seemed a living character with its ability to shine light over 30 miles of ocean but not down on the island.  As one reader remarked, it was an island of darkness and it was apt that a darkness grew between Tom and Isabel once they crossed a moral boundary.  Other readers marveled at the roller coaster of emotions the author evoked, jerking them up and down and around and leaving them in a heap of mixed feelings much as the ocean tides deposit heaps of debris on the shore.

Our readers felt all the characters had great depth, and Ms. Stedman wonderfully developed these human beings who made some bad decisions.  Which is not to say we liked all the characters at all times!  As with most people, they had flaws and less attractive sides.  Our feelings were intensely involved – a couple readers did not hesitate to criticize some of Tom’s actions; others felt Lucy’s birth mother left a lot to be desired when compared to Isabel.  However, as many readers commented, the author made it so easy to place yourself in the characters’ place and truly wonder what you might have done in a similar situation.  The magic of this book was that these characters were REAL to us.  Even though the novel took place oceans away in an earlier day, it was as if we were there, too.  To be absorbed into the story to that extent leaves the readers open and vulnerable to the characters’ motives, emotions and reasoning. As one reader said, the book morally “ties you into a pretzel” as you consider choices that were made and others that could have been made.  Another compared it to a morality play with vivid depictions of right and wrong.  Certainly, from the arrival of Lucy, the characters set in motion a cascade of events that swept them ever faster and faster to the novel’s denouement.

A few readers were bothered by the author’s use of different tenses in various chapters and felt it a distracting annoyance.  Perhaps it was a device employed to subliminally suggest the upheaval  in the characters’ lives as events began to toss and turn them, leaving them battered like a bather tumbled by an ocean wave.  If so, Zion’s readers could relate to that for reading this book definitely shook them out of complacency.  Six of them enthusiastically gave The Light Between Oceans one thumb up, while two gave it a whole-hearted two thumbs up.  Good story, good book, cannot wait to read Ms. Stedman’s next novel!