Since I get kind of feely in fall and winter, this seemed like a great time to curl up with a mug of tea and a heavy tear-jerker. My latest read for book club was The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, and it was an emotional roller coaster. Buckle up.
Category and Genre: Adult, historical literary fiction
Synopsis: After surviving the horrors of World War I, young Australian Tom Sherbourne takes a position as a light keeper on the remote station of Janus Rock. Situated 100 miles off the coast of Australia where the Indian and Arctic oceans meet, the island is hauntingly lonely until Tom brings his exuberant bride, Isabel, to live with him. Isabel’s contentedness on the island is spoiled by the grief of two miscarriages and a tragic stillbirth. When a boat washes up to the island—containing a dead man and a live baby girl—Isabel sees it as a gift from God. Tom finds himself torn between his duty to the Lights, his loyalty to Isabel, and their love for a child they were never meant to have.
This book wrung every drop of emotional agony out of me until all that remained of me was a tear-soaked pile of tissues. And leg warmers. I suggest following it up with one of these feel-good books.
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I wish I could compare Stedman’s novel to something familiar, but I’ve honestly never read anything quite like it. The story is emotionally exhausting, but moving, beautiful, and exquisitely written. Not only is it relatable, but it’s written in such a believable manner that I might have read it in my morning news feed—what better source exists for heartbreaking stories?
The backdrop of the island and lighthouse are among the most notable features of this book, and they factor into the development of the characters. Tom and Isabel shield themselves in the isolation of the island, a loneliness that is both foreign and immediately palpable for the reader. Even the narrative style has a lonely wail inherent in the prose:
“On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” ~TLBO, 110
The lighthouse even became a character of its own: steadfast, true, always shining a path of truth in the dark of night. When Tom (reliable, fastidious Tom) doctors his duty log, we immediately know he is headed down a dangerous path. We feel the light pressing on him, the all-seeing eye burning into his conscience.
Isabel, on the other hand, is a character rife with contradictions. She is likeable, but not unfailingly so (especially when compared to our beacon-of-truth Tom). She’s the quintessential tragic, flawed character. She is a mother with no children, a kidnapper with nothing but love in her heart. Stedman does an incredible job of laying the foundation for readers to sympathize with Isabel’s anguish at losing her children, but not so much that we don’t admonish her selfish behavior. Much of the narration is delivered with striking candor, so that our most tender points (especially for parents) are fatally exposed.
“If a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent lost a child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or a daughter.”~TLBO, 123
There is a tremendous amount of sadness in this story, and I would argue that’s all the more reason it should be shared. Too often we bury ourselves in happy stories we wish into existence, ignoring and marginalizing the humanity of our losses. There is also so much beauty and truth in this couple’s strife. The Light Between Oceans reaches right into the soul to touch something sacred and unique in our human struggle to love and be loved. Absolutely stunning.
Readers will love this book for: It’s ability to draw you in to the shielded solitude of the island—a world in which the lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous of all.
Buy tissues. Just sayin’.
What writers can learn from this book: The story elements are spot on. Sparkling metaphors, well-developed characters, and details spread through the plot like butter. I went a tad crazy with my highlighter (ok, new heights of crazy), but this book contains a wealth of beautiful sentences I’ve not found since The Great Gatsby.
The declining action and resolution were a bit lengthy, in my opinion, which impacted my final rating. I was still enraptured with the book and would recommend it to lovers of literary fiction.
Final rating: 4.5 stars