The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
'This is a story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same ...
1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world.
One April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant - and the path of the couple's lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.
Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they made that day - as the baby's real story unfolds ...'
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Disappointed. I was so looking forward to reading this. This promised to be the style of book I really enjoy. But.
The author spends much of the first part of the book explaining Tom, presumably as background for the events we know are coming. He is a man emotionally damaged by war, bewildered by the break-up of his parents relationship and deeply wounded by the absence of his mother, raised by a father who didn’t talk and was unable or unwilling to show affection, yet a man who is still apparently ‘good’ and ‘moral’ and able to put other people first. He seeks the isolation of the Lights to give him the time and space to deal with his mental anguish and finds solace in a regimented life, governed by strict regulations and unchanging routine. It is clear from the description of his first day alone on Janus Island that he is a man struggling with severe mental disturbance. Despite all this build up I feel that the true implications of his emotional and mental problems are never examined. Throughout the book I feel that he is being characterised as a man with integrity and dignity, a likable, agreeable soul who puts the whims of his wife first and compromises himself to keep her happy and to eventually protect her from the nasty policemen. Seriously? Why put so much work into defining Tom to then back off and let him be the ‘nice’ guy?
In contrast there is very little of substance to explain Isabel and her part in the events of the story. We met her briefly. A young, pretty, vivacious girl who has led a sheltered life in a very small community. She is playful and talkative, enjoys company and is bored by her quiet, isolated existence. She has never been anywhere or seen anything of the world. She longs for adventure and romance. In her ‘Swiss cheese’ town the population of eligible young men has been decimated due to the war and Isabel throws herself headlong into a relationship with the first interesting stranger who crosses her path. There is mention of the loss of her brothers in the war and the way her parents reacted – withdrawing into themselves, leaving Isabel even more isolated and longing for affection and to be able to ‘get her parents to smile again’ - but the impact of this on Isabel’s psyche is never explored. Her parents allow their only remaining child to marry this stranger and let her disappear to her island. She and her new husband find joy with each other until she has a miscarriage. Tom makes her happy again by getting the piano fixed and then we suddenly fast forward five years to find a couple still apparently in love, dealing with the loss of a third child when suddenly a living baby appears on their island and they end up keeping her and passing her off as their own. And from there on everything proceeds in a rather civilised manner, the only conflict being between Tom and his conscience as he acquiesces to his wife’s wishes. And this is where it lost me.
Those five unexplained, unmentioned years are the meat in the sandwich, the whole bones of the story. We have a vibrant young girl with stars in her eyes who will wake up one day and find herself on a rock in the middle of the ocean, alone except for a man who doesn’t talk. To be married to a man who doesn’t talk is hard enough for a women with neighbours on every side, with friends and family only a phone-call away, with a job that takes her out of her environment and children that fill the silence. To be alone with only three-monthly visits from two men on a supply ship to break the isolation and provide information, conversation, diversion – the toll on the spirit of a young woman would be immense. Once the glow of early love, lust and infatuation had worn off it wouldn’t take long before the rationed words and immeasurable silences would begin to breed resentment, loathing, anger. Surely the internal voices would begin to clamour to fill the silence?
The horrific first miscarriage is discussed from Tom’s point of view but never from Isabel’s. Screaming in the dark for a husband who is too full of his own woes to notice. We know that the aftermath is bad – why else the visit of the piano repairer? The three-monthly boat may bring letters and gifts from distant parents, but although a piano man could make the voyage those same parents never once visit their only child, and the loving husband never thinks to call on them, to alert them to the distress and depression of his beautiful young wife. Or is he too much of a coward to risk her temper by calling for the help she so clearly needs? We have only one paragraph to know that she has a temper. Is it from grief alone or is it a much bigger part of her that will actually shape the outcome of the story?
And then we have another miscarriage and then a still-birth.
At this point, at the beginning of Part II, I believe Isabel would be dancing along the edge of insanity. Surely a girl who writes quirky letters to a barely-met lighthouse keeper would also be the sort of girl who would keep a journal, would find solace in conversations with herself, the conversations she can never have with her husband? Where are they, these conversations? Where is the record of her life in these dark days? How does she feel about the man to whom she gave her youth? Does she punish him by withdrawing physical affection? Does she fly into rages, vocalising her anger and discontent? Does she sink into silence, changing her habits to spend as little time in his company as possible?
Surely at this point in the story Tom should be consumed with fear for the safety of his wife, worried that the naming of ‘Izzy’s Cliff’ may have been an omen for what he fears may become her self-inflicted fate? He should be racked with guilt for taking his bright star away from her home and family, for being unable to give her the healthy child she so desperately wants, for his inability to find the words that would soothe her pain and bring her comfort. He should be a man worn out, beginning to let things slip in his duties as he tries to care for Isabel and manage the tasks she neglects in her depression – cooking, cleaning, gardening – living in fear that one day he will be unable to keep the light burning.
And now, with this understanding of Tom and Isabel, we may be able to comprehend why they make the choices they make over the next four or so years. We may be able to see why Tom is so easily manipulated into maintaining the lie. We see their lives return to the something akin to that promised by the early days of their marriage and observe them begin to find happiness and contentment as a family, yet we recognise the lie that poisons their paradise. We believe Isabel’s fear of being discovered, of losing not just her child but her whole identity and reason for living. We believe Tom’s fear of pushing Isabel back to the brink and his relief at having her bright, sunny self returned to him. We recognise Tom’s confession not as a selfless act of love and protection but as atonement for the guilt that has racked his soul for nearly a decade. We can identify the agony of the parents who should have been their for their daughter, who maybe could have prevented the disaster by being more present in her life, who struggle to deal with the aftermath as they nurse their daughter while her husband languishes in gaol.
But we don’t. Because none of that is there. Instead we have a story that skirts around the edges and never gets it’s hands dirty with the ins and outs of the relationship between the two main characters. And then we get an ending that ties it all up in a neat bow of forgiveness and promise for the future. And people turning up too late for reconciliation more than once in the same story. And a man that still gets to be the good guy.