“There are still more days to travel in this life. And he knows that the man who makes the journey has been shaped by every day and every person along the way. Scars are just another kind of memory. Isabel is part of him, wherever she is, just like the war and the light and the ocean. Soon enough the days will close over their lives, the grass will grow over their graves, until their story is just an unvisited headstone. He watches the ocean surrender to the night, knowing that the light will reappear.”
The Light Between Oceans, written by M.L. Stedman, follows war veteran Tom Sherbourne, who returns home to Western Australia after fighting in the western trenches of World War I in Europe. After meeting and quickly falling in love with the young Isabel, the newly married couple move to an isolated island where Tom maintains the upkeep of a working lighthouse, and Isabel gets used to married life away from her family. But as Tom struggles with his numb emotions from serving in the war, and after the heartache of not being able to start a family of their own, the couple rescues a baby girl who has washed up on an adrift rowboat.
Believing their prayers may have finally been answered, Isabel encourages Tom to informally adopt her as their own but, as a man of principle, Tom is torn between reporting the lost child and pleasing the woman he loves. Against his better judgement, he agrees to let Isabel keep the child, naming her Lucy and informing their families that she is their own. But when Tom and Isabel return to the mainland a few years later, they soon discover that their actions may have had devastating consequences for the lives of others.
The following post is a review of the book only. You can read my review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book here.
Set in Australia in the 1920s, The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully written book exploring a heart-wrenching moral dilemma between a husband and wife.
With alluring descriptions of the Australian coast as the story’s backdrop, the artistic setting of The Light Between Oceans is contrasted with the loneliness of Janus island and its lighthouse, as well as the two characters who reside there. Tom is used to being alone and battling his own demons, whilst Isabel moves away from her busy life on the mainland with the intent to fill her life on Janus with a family of her own. But after having two miscarriages and a stillborn, Tom and Isabel soon begin to feel the confinements of living so far away from the rest of the world.
Dealing with such a delicate topic in this claustrophobic setting, it’s easy to feel Tom and Isabel’s suffering from the outset, making The Light Between Oceans a difficult story to delve straight into. With this slow start and depressing atmosphere, you aren’t urged to keep reading until your eyes can’t physically stay open any longer at first, but this will suddenly change around halfway through.
At its heart, The Light Between Oceans is a brilliant exploration of what’s right and wrong, and about when good people make bad decisions. With this tormenting conflict at the centre of the story, you know that something is going to happen to shake up the lives of these characters, but to what extent?
It is this unknowing that makes The Light Between Oceans such a unique and empowering read, and it is in the final few chapters that the emotional impact of the story will take over, as you will soon find yourself weeping inconsolably as you face this moral dilemma for yourself. Would you stand by your other half no matter what? Or would you think about the consequences, even if that meant that you were giving up everything you wanted most in life?
Tom and Isabel are incredibly strong characters, ones we are relieved to have found each other, and it is through their conflicting morals that highlight the power of marriage, binding two people together in love, but also of the destruction that such a love can cause, as Tom and Isabel betray each other with their affections.
Whilst both characters are believable enough for you to feel for them during their harrowing situation, you also find yourself feeling against each of them at one time or another, due to the intense pressure that their decision puts them under.
Tom is a selfless character who will do anything for his wife, which is where his strength comes from at first. But, eventually, you want him to give into Isabel and lead a happy life with her, even though you know this would be a life of pretence. In the end, you admire him for his determination to stand up for what is right, despite his own feelings and relationship that is in the firing line.
Isabel, however, is a selfish character who will do anything to have a family of her own. Her story is painful for anybody to read about; a situation that any woman would hate to imagine themselves in, which is why it’s so difficult to know what you would do in her shoes. It’s because of this that many people will struggle with Isabel’s character. Should we feel sorry for her and pity her situation? Or should we be more like Tom and be selfless, thinking about the lives of those she is affecting instead of only ourselves?
For a debut novel, Stedman does an excellent job of getting her readers emotionally invested in this story. It is an incredibly mature novel focusing on loss and desperation, but one that many readers will struggle to engage with because of its unique and undesirable predicament.
It’s a story that people will read very differently, and maybe one that we should all return to in ten years or so, after gaining more experience in life and seeing how our views might have changed. So don’t put it down too hastily because, if you can’t engage with it at first, it may be worth a re-read at some other time.
The Light Between Oceans was adapted into a film in 2016, which you can read my Book vs. Film Review for here, and watch the trailer for below: