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Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

Posted by gck Tuesday, January 8, 2013

lightbetweenoceansThe Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Recommended for: people who like stories about parent-child bonds

Book 11 of 52 in the “Around the World” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, 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.
Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.

My review:
I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the immersive setting, and I enjoyed how emotionally invested the characters had me, but it’s hard for me to say that I enjoyed the book (in the same way that it’s hard to “enjoy” a book about the Holocaust). The whole thing is pretty consistently and oppressively dark in mood from start to finish, with only a few points of light, all of which occur near the beginning. This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to anyone who reads the description, but somehow it did feel heavier than I expected, especially since I read most of the second half in one sitting.

I found the emotions in the story to be powerful, but it would probably affect a reader even more if he or she identified with the strong bond between parent and child, the horror of losing a child, or an intense longing to have a baby. As someone who has no children and has not (yet) experienced the need to have them, I didn’t personally connect with those sentiments, which also made me feel more distant from Isabel, who changes drastically because of them.

There is a lot in the characters’ actions to discuss. Was it right? Can you understand why? What should have been done instead? Great for book club. Ultimately, the idea I thought was consistently illustrated was that when it comes to great tragedy, people will go to extremes to protect their self-interest or the interest of those closest to them, even when it results in horrible behavior towards others who do not deserve it. When you’ve got a bunch of people behaving in this way, it’s not hard to see why the book ends up being so dark.

These things may seem like they are negative things, but I think they actually give a strong recommendation for reading the book. Tragedy is more complex than pure happiness, and these characters are ones that will stick in my mind longer than most.


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