After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. Read more...
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After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby's cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom's judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.
M. L. Stedman's mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel's decision to keep this "gift from God." And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another's tragic loss.
"The Light Between Oceans "is exquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-06-04
- Reviewer: Staff
In Stedman’s deftly crafted debut, Tom Sherbourne, seeking constancy after the horrors of WWI, takes a lighthouse keeper’s post on an Australian island, and calls for Isabel, a young woman he met on his travels, to join him there as his wife. In peaceful isolation, their love grows. But four years on the island and several miscarriages bring Isabel’s seemingly boundless spirit to the brink, and leave Tom feeling helpless until a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a living child. Isabel convinces herself—and Tom—that the baby is a gift from God. After two years of maternal bliss for Isabel and alternating waves of joy and guilt for Tom, the family, back on the mainland, is confronted with the mother of their child, very much alive. Stedman grounds what could be a far-fetched premise, setting the stage beautifully to allow for a heart-wrenching moral dilemma to play out, making evident that “Right and wrong can be like bloody snakes: so tangled up that you can’t tell which is which until you’ve shot ’em both, and then it’s too late.” Most impressive is the subtle yet profound maturation of Isabel and Tom as characters. Agent: Susan Armstrong, Conville & Walsh. (Aug.)
The echoes of a fateful choice
In the wake of World War I, on a remote island off the coast of Australia, lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel make a life-altering choice: to keep and raise a foundling child who is not theirs. The repercussions of this decision shape M.L. Stedman’s stunning debut novel, The Light Between Oceans.
We caught up with Stedman (herself born and raised in Western Australia) for a discussion of right and wrong, moral ambiguity and an author’s responsibility to her characters.
What a mesmerizing story. Did anything specific inspire you to write The Light Between Oceans?
I write fairly instinctively, just seeing what comes up when I sit down at the page. For this story, it was a lighthouse, then a woman and a man. Before long, a boat washed up on the beach, and in it I could see a dead man, and then a crying baby. Everything that happens in the book stems from this initiating image—a bit like the idea of ‘Big Bang’—an initial point that seems tiny turns out to be incredibly dense, and just expanded outward further and further. I got to know Tom and Isabel as I wrote them, and was drawn into their seemingly insoluble dilemma, and their struggle to stay true to their love for each other as well as to their own deepest drives.
The major moral question of keeping a child that isn’t yours is posed early in the book. Do you think there was a “right” decision for Tom and Isabel?
Aha! It’s up to each reader to come up with their own answer to this one.
Fair enough. Well, you do a wonderful job of refusing to pass judgment on your characters. Was this a conscious choice and if so, was it difficult to do?
It was a conscious choice, yes. I think today more than ever we can fall into “sound-bite judgment,” reaching conclusions on the basis of quite a cursory consideration of an issue. It’s a kind of moral multitasking, that stems perhaps from being required to have an opinion on everything. If we really stop to consider things, they’re rarely black and white.
As to the second part of your question, the more my own views differed from that of a character, the more satisfying I found it to explore them and to put their point of view as convincingly as possible.
To this end, do you think there is a “bad guy” here? Do all books need heroes and antagonists?
I don’t think there are any “bad guys” in the book, just some poor choices made on the basis of imperfect information or perspective (i.e. the lot of the standard-issue human). Stories need tension, which can be supplied by antagonists, but here it’s supplied by fate or circumstance—the overwhelming force that pretty much all the characters are up against. One good character’s gain will be another good character’s loss, which makes the questions a lot harder. I didn’t want there to be any “safe place” in the book where the reader could relax and say, “I’m completely sure of what the right thing to do is here.”
If we really stop to consider things, they’re rarely black and white.
Speaking of antagonists, the landscape of Janus Rock and the great sea beyond is awfully unforgiving. Is it based on a real location?
No and yes. The island of Janus Rock is entirely fictitious (although I have a placeholder for it on Google maps). But the region where the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet is real, and the climate, weather and the landscape are more or less as I’ve described them. I wrote some of the book there: It’s a very beautiful, if sometimes fierce, part of the world.
Lighthouses are always weighty images in literature. What do they represent to you?
A lighthouse automatically implies potential drama: You only find them where there’s a risk of going astray or running aground. They’re a reminder, too, of human frailty, and the heroic endeavor of mankind to take on the forces of nature in a ludicrously unfair fight to make safe our journey through this world. And they betoken binary opposites such as safety and danger, light and dark, movement and stasis, communication and isolation—they are intrinsically dynamic because they make our imaginations pivot between them.
What kind of research did you do to prepare to write?
To prepare, none at all! My research very much followed the story rather than leading it. I climbed up lighthouses, and went through the lightkeepers’ logbooks in the Australian National Archives—wonderful. And I spent time in the British Library, reading battalion journals and other materials from Australian soldiers in WWI: heartbreaking accounts that often left me in tears.
Do you have any useful tips for aspiring novelists?
Write because you love it. Write because that’s how you want to spend those irreplaceable heartbeats. Don’t write to please anyone else, or to achieve something that will retrospectively validate your choice.