Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Jennifer Poff Cooper, Christiansburg, graduate student at Hollins University.
M. L. Stedman’s debut novel, “The Light Between Oceans,” touted as one of the best novels of 2012, is a dichotomy: a simple story, yet an extraordinarily complicated conflict.
Set circa 1920, the book opens with the chance romance of Tom, a former soldier haunted by his time on the front, and the feisty Isabel, who meet once Tom returns to Australia. Tom subsequently takes a position as lighthouse keeper on an island called Janus, and is shocked that Isabel wants to follow him to the isolated post. The two marry and find a new normal, just the two of them, on Janus. Eventually Isabel becomes pregnant and suffers two miscarriages. Following the stillbirth of a baby boy, Isabel is inconsolable.
Soon after, Isabel hears the cries of a baby and thinks she is imagining things. However, she and Tom find on the shore of Janus a washed-up boat containing a dead man and a live baby girl. A stickler for rules, Tom is prepared to report the finding at once. Isabel, though, convinces him that the circumstances of the boat’s arrival mean that both of the baby’s parents are dead. Before Tom can argue, Isabel has taken the baby into their home and dropped her into the life meant for a biological Sherbourne baby. With their isolation, who will know that the baby isn’t Isabel’s? Against his better judgment, Tom relents. Isabel names the baby Lucy, meaning “light,” and the three live an idyllic existence for several years – until, on shore leave, they discover a woman who has suffered in agony since her husband and daughter’s boat went missing.
Thus begins the meat of the novel. Tom’s moral compass is working overtime as he tries to discern the right thing to do, while Isabel insists that they have come too far to turn back. At first, while on Janus, they can pretend that all is right with the world; however, as time goes on, Tom is reminded at every turn of his deception, which not only troubles him but drives a wedge in his marriage.
It was important for Stedman to set up the relationship between Tom and Isabel – the dynamic in which quiet Tom felt fortunate to have landed a wife, and Isabel as a strong-willed, spirited soul. However, knowing the painful struggle to come in the book, it was a bit frustrating to spend 100 pages on build-up. The story continued to be slow at times, focusing on the mechanics of the lighthouse and the Sherbournes’ self-sustaining lifestyle on the island, when the conflict over the baby provided the heart of the story.
Once the lie is exposed, the lives of all involved are turned upside-down. Family is pitted against family, husband against wife. Stedman focuses on Tom and Isabel, while the character of Hannah, the biological mother, is not even introduced until well into the novel. Still, the reader struggles with which mother’s side to take and sympathizes with Tom’s moral dilemma. Given the fact that two families desire the same child, there can be no happy, satisfying ending. The reader keeps turning the pages to find out how Stedman will have the story play out. Who will end up with the child? And why? How will the outcome affect the three parents?
In addition to the central conflict, the ideas of fate, destiny, and God’s will underlie the novel, making “The Light Between Oceans” a compelling, thoughtful read.
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