One From the Archive: ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman ****

First published in February 2012.

The Light Between Oceans is Australian author M.L. Stedman’s debut novel. It tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, a married couple living on a remote island named Janus Rock, 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia. Tom mans the lighthouse on the island, and the Sherbournes are the only people who live there.

The pivotal event of the novel – ‘the day of the miracle’ during April 1926 – occurs in the prologue. Tom and Isabel find a boat on a secluded beach. Inside is a dead man and a tiny baby, with no clue as to who they are or where they have come from. Faced with no other option, the couple, who have no children of their own, take the baby back to their house.

On impulse, Isabel, longing to be a mother, decides to keep the child. She is unable to be parted from the baby, whom she decides to name Lucy. She subsequently persuades the reluctant Tom that a baby girl will be a wonderful addition to their home, making them a family at last. The lives of the Sherbournes alter immensely following Lucy’s arrival. Their entire dynamic changes. Being a mother of sorts alters Isabel’s character and outlook in its entirety. She becomes kind and compassionate, and the earlier grief of several miscarriages which once filled her to the brim begins to dissipate.

Once this irreversible decision is made, the first chapter of The Light Between Oceans consequently goes back in time to December 1918, when Tom is just signing up to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service after returning unscathed from fighting in the First World War. At this point, Tom and Isabel, eleven years his junior, have only met each other a couple of times, but they soon begin a slow correspondence with one another, he from Janus Rock and she from the mainland. Isabel is soon fixated on becoming a permanent part of Tom’s landscape on the island. Stedman wonderfully illustrates their building relationship and the instances in which their lives begin to intertwine with one another’s.

The narrative contains flashbacks from Tom and Isabel’s past. By making use of their back-stories, Stedman is able to explain in part why their characters are as they are and behave as they do. Consequently, every trait which Tom and Isabel demonstrate seems to be there for a definite reason. Isabel is impulsive and curious. She seems intent to live life to the full and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for exploration. Tom, on the other hand, appears to be a little awkward at times with those around him. He does not always know how to act in a situation, or the best thing to say. This characteristic makes him seem more three-dimensional and really brings him to life. The Sherbourne’s story is at turns both hopeful and incredibly sad.

The plot of the novel thickens when, on a rare trip over to the mainland, Tom and Isabel learn how baby Lucy came to be washed up on the shores of Janus Rock. They hear that her biological mother, Hannah Potts, is mad with grief and still frantically searching for her lost baby and husband. The façades which Tom and Isabel have adopted begin to unravel as the story moves forward. Lucy’s entire life is built around a lie which swells as she grows.

A definite theme in the novel is the ability of humankind to distinguish lies from the truth. Many half-truths are at work throughout. Another issue is the alteration of perceptions, particularly as the novel reaches its climax.

The historical details which Stedman has woven into her plot are accurate and well written. These details help to further set the scene and are balanced incredibly well with the narrative regarding her characters. The period has been very well researched. Stedman has placed emphasis upon the differing societal expectations held in Australia for boys and girls during the first decades of the twentieth century. Great rifts appear in the society of her novel merely due to the genders of the characters. Stedman has also made use of some Australian slang in the dialogue of several of the characters. This technique helps to make all of those who feature in the novel distinctly different to one another. They utilise different phrases and use language in different ways. Some of the vocabulary is also culturally specific, which is a nice touch.

The narrative does not just centre on Tom and Isabel, but embraces all of those who have a part to play in the novel, however small. There are rather a lot of characters which feature in The Light Between Oceans, but their introductions into the story are paced well. Not once does the reader feel overwhelmed by the volume of characters, and it is extremely easy to keep track of who’s who. Stedman’s characterisation is skilful. She uses many small details to describe the minutiae of each individual, and then knits all of these tiny traits together to form a cast of believable characters.

Stedman sets the scene from the outset. The landscape of the island is described so vividly that the reader feels they are there. Her descriptions are so evocative that the places mentioned in the novel become almost like characters themselves. They are essentially personified. The relationship between the land and the characters, and vice versa, becomes an intrinsic fibre of the story, really bringing The Light Between Oceans to life. Stedman’s portrayal really captures the atmosphere of Janus Rock and Western Australia, and the place of the characters within it.

The Light Between Oceans is told from the third person narrative perspective. The narrative is clever – it manages to be chatty in style, yet eloquent in its language and structure. Stedman effortlessly weaves so many elements into the story. Some of the story’s narrative uses the past tense, and some the present tense. Whilst this technique often makes the narrative in other novels seem fractured and unconnected, it works incredibly well in The Light Between Oceans. The writing is incredibly rich, and Stedman’s illustrations of the grief which the characters encounter is described so poignantly. The sheer force of human emotions is highlighted throughout.

The novel is incredibly engrossing and well executed. Stedman wonderfully portrays how one event can cause lives to rupture, to break and to be built again. She illustrates the way in which life’s saddest events can never really be overcome, no matter which paths our lives travel down.

The Light Between Oceans is an incredibly accomplished debut. After a nine-way publishing auction in the United Kingdom, the novel will be published by Doubleday in April 2012.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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