I accept all the criticisms of M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans – that it’s a story akin to the most melodramatic Danielle Steele; that you know what will happen because of some clunky plot points; that the characters are unlikeable. Yes, true. But: ALL. THE. TEARS. And you know I like a good tear-jerker.
The story is set predominantly off the coast of Western Australia, on the small island of Janus Rock, where Tom Sherbourne is the lighthouse keeper.
“And Janus Rock, linked only by the store boat four times a year, dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.”
The story is set just after WWI and Tom is a returned soldier, familiar with the horrors of war and therefore relishing the solitude and routine of Janus Island.
“Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all. It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.”
To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season, 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. What to do?
At first I thought Stedman’s writing style was a little plain. The wild coastal setting and the heart-wrenching topic allowed for something boldly descriptive and yet for the most part, the style was utilitarian. Despite this, the author did an excellent job of creating a sense of time and to a lesser extent, place. I haven’t read many stories about WWI and it’s aftermath that have dealt so specifically with the effect of war on mothers, families and more broadly on towns that lost all their able-bodied men to battle.
“The town cemetery had always recorded this truthfully, and its headstones, some lolling like loose, grimy teeth, told frankly the stories of lives taken early by influenza and drownings, by timber whims and even lightning strikes. But in 1915, it began to lie. Boys and men from across the district were dying by the score, yet the graveyards said nothing.”
By setting Tom and Isabel’s story against the losses experienced at the hand of war, as well as the loss of babies to stillbirth and childhood diseases more common a century ago, Stedman creates a story that is heart-breaking on so many levels.
“The surviving children got used to the new way of setting the table with one place fewer, just as they grew accustomed to squishing along the bench when another sibling arrived..”
By the end, I’d warmed to the plain writing – it focused me on the raw emotion. And, when it comes to the lives of babies and parents, emotions are raw.
“Once a child gets into your heart, there’s no right or wrong about it.”
Stedmen weaves in all sorts of parent/child relationships into this story – the would-be mothers that crave a child; a little boy who is sent to sent to Australia from England with a note around his neck “I’m a good Christian boy, please look after me”; grieving parents; orphans; estranged families; and, for Tom and Isabel, the cruel truth of what makes a person a parent. I’m a bit hopeless when it comes to stories about little kids being separated from parents – my own father was just five years old when he lost his mum and the scars remain. Needless to say, The Light Between Oceans will stay with me for a long time.
4/5 Arm yourself with tissues.
The greatest treat that a visiting boat could bring Janus Island? Oranges. I love orange cake, orange curd and orange jelly but I also love the look of this Avocado, Beetroot and Orange Salad by Martha Stewart.