Heartbreaking and beautiful, ML Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is one of those perfectly pitched, sweeping period novels you only come across every so often.
The story begins in 1918, with young WWI veteran Tom Sherbourne recently returned to his native Australia after serving in the trenches in France. Though physically unmarked, he is tortured by his memories and suffering from survivor’s guilt. He seeks peace through a life of solitude. To that end, he takes a posting as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, 100 miles off the south-western coast of Australia. Life doesn’t get more solitary than this:
‘On Janus, there is no reason to speak. Tom can go for months and not hear his own voice. He knows some keepers who make a point of singing, just like turning over an engine to make sure it still works. But Tom finds a freedom in the silence. He listens to the wind. He observes the tiny details of life on the island.’
And there’s this wonderful passage about his first night alone on the square-mile-sized island:
‘He must turn to something solid, because if he didn’t, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast. That was the only thing that had got him through four years of blood and madness: know exactly where your gun is when you doze for ten minutes in your dugout; always check your gas mask; see that your men have understood their orders to the letter. You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is speculation.
‘He raised the binoculars and scoured the island for more signs of life: he needed to see the goats, the sheep; to count them. Stick to the solid. To the brass fittings which had to be polished, the glass which had to be cleaned – first the outer glass of the lantern, then the prisms themselves. Getting the oil in, keeping the cogs moving smoothly, topping up the mercury to let the light glide. He gripped each thought like the rung of a ladder by which to haul himself back to the knowable; back to this life.’
His plan to hide away in a metaphorical hermit’s cave backfires when he falls in love with a young woman from the port town that is his occasional mainland base. Isabel Graysmark is a lively, forthright girl who instigates much of their relationship, and after a courtship via letters carried on the waves by a supply boat, they are married and she comes to live with him.
For a while, their lives seem idyllic. However, tragedy befalls them when Isabel suffers a series of miscarriages, the losses weighing as heavily on her as Tom’s wartime memories do on him. Then one day – extraordinarily – a small boat washes ashore. Aboard is a dead man and a very much living baby girl. In Isabel’s vulnerable mental state, having just buried her latest lost baby, it seems as if their prayers have been answered with a miracle. She convinces Tom it’s their destiny to raise the baby as their own. For Tom, who finds comfort in the quiet order of rules and the dutiful filling in of log books, it is a new source of turmoil. He knows rationally that things can’t be so simple. And indeed they aren’t, as the little girl’s actual parentage gradually becomes clearer.
I loved the unshowiness of Stedman’s writing – she allows this morality tale to unfold in a simple, moving way. At times she’s a bit heavy-handed with the metaphors – for example, Isabel is a light in the dark for Tom, while the supply boat that links them to the shore and ultimately proves their undoing is called The Wayward Spirit. But she makes up for it with likeable, fallible characters and wonderful period detail. And though it’s a backdrop rather than a theme, she also captures the devastation of communities when war comes along and ruthlessly scoops up their greatest hopes. In my opinion (and I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree), the author deftly treads the right side of what could be a mawkish, sentimental tale in lesser hands.
Then there’s the majestic, benign lighthouse on the fictional Janus Rock, practically a character in its own right, ‘its beam providing a mantle of safety for thirty miles. Each night the air sang with the steady hum of the lantern as it turned, turned, turned; even-handed, not blaming the rocks, not fearing the waves; there for salvation if wanted.’ No wonder Tom sought solace there.
This is a highly visual story which lends itself well to a film adaptation. Indeed, the big-screen version premieres soon, starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender. It’s guaranteed to be a three-boxes-of-mansize-tissues weepie, and I just hope they’ve retained the character details that raise this above the average romantic period novel. SPOILER ALERT: as with all film trailers, this gives away a good deal of the plot, so probably best not to watch it if you plan to read the book:
#SomeBooksofSummer-ish 5 of 7. Next up – The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent