I'd kill for my baby. No question,” a character in The Light Between Oceans swears. What you do for a baby?
This debut novel of M L Stedman, who was raised in Western Australia, was published in 2012 and is one of the most successful Australian novels in recent years. An international best seller, it was adapted for film and produced by Steven Spielberg in 2016.
The story unfolds on the small island of Janus Rock on the west coast of Australia where the treacherous Great Southern Ocean meets the warm, calm Indian Ocean. Named after the Roman deity, the god with two faces, the location is the physical manifestation of this duality. This foreshadows the important idea that there is more than one way of looking at things.
Tom Sherbourne, a returned WWI soldier, becomes the lighthouse keeper of Janus Light. Seeking peace and solitude after the horrors of the Western Front, Tom carries the mental scars of his wartime experience as he tries to get on with his life.
The lighthouse dominates life on the island and exerts its character on those who live with it. The intricate working of the lighthouse is explained via the dialogue
without descending into exposition, giving the reader a deep appreciation of its importance. In turn, light, in a literal and metaphorical sense is at the heart of the story. Light illuminates conflicts for introspection and staves off darkness created by the vagaries of human nature and life's choices.
Against this backdrop, Isabel (Izzy), a beautiful, carefree girl from Partugeuse, falls in love with the older Tom. She joins him on Janus as his bride and enthusiastically embraces the unique life of a lighthouse keeper's wife. This is their love story, the intensity of which Stedman maintains throughout the novel.
A violent storm heralds Izzy's first miscarriage. Isolated, she battles the mental and physical anguish of losing a child. The reader can only feel empathy and compassion as Stedman does a brilliant job of conveying Izzy's plight. The discovery of a castaway baby, days after her second traumatic miscarriage, establishes a credible scenario for what happens next. Izzy's desperation to keep the child is heartbreaking.
Out of love and against his better judgement Tom agrees to keep the real facts of the baby's arrival secret. This decision creates a major moral dilemma which Tom and Izzy approach from different moral compass points. Telling the truth is a principle Tom lives by and his sense of right and wrong is highly developed. Tom's discovery of the identity of the real mother and her suffering, haunts him but Izzy is in denial. Stedman unfolds the narrative without judgement and we, the reader, must decide where justice lies.
It's a beautiful story, well supported by the viewpoint of the minor characters. You may shed a tear but this compelling read will stay with you. By the end, we appreciate what a mother will do for the love of a child.
Reviewed by Linda Ross