Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Light Between Oceans by M.E. Stedman

Often in doing research to write a book review, the story behind the story can be as interesting as the story itself.  I found this to be the case in The Light Between Oceans by M.E. Stedman.  It began as a short story of 15,000 words written in three weeks.  After sending it to an agent, the author was told it had the makings of a novel.  So began Stedman’s intensive research on lighthouses, including a visit to the bleakness of Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse to find living inspiration for Janus Rock, the setting for her story off the Australian coast.

In an interview with Stedman, she says, “There is something that appeals to the human psyche about lighthouses because of their isolation. Their presence offers up a marvelous set of dichotomies the human imagination likes to explore—darkness and light, safety and danger, stasis and movement, isolation and communication.”

Lighthouses have been a source of myth-making in literature for years. They have stood for sanctuary, knowledge and reason, their pulsating light symbolizing silence and surety, the steady march of time. Their beam of white brilliance slashes through black nights and dense squalls to reach beyond the curve of the Earth.  The white stone lighthouse of this novel also serves a dramatic purpose, illuminating the tension between right and wrong, good and evil. And like this beacon, the characters in this story pull us in to their world and the choices they make that lead to unbearable sadness for all involved.

Tom Sherbourne has just returned from a four-year tour of duty on the Western Front, feeling guilty for surviving when so many of his mates did not. In an attempt to flee from the dark memories of the war, he accepts the position of lighthouse keeper on the island of Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast.  It is so isolated that the supply boat comes only once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best.

On a visit to the coast, a young and adventurous girl, Isabel, falls in love with him and wants to spend her life with him on his chosen lighthouse mission. Once again, he cannot believe his good fortune as they marry.  Their early days on the island are filled with love, exploration of the island and each other, and the beginnings of a beautiful life together. Their fortune, however, sadly turns after two miscarriages and one stillbirth.  Tom would do anything to alleviate Isabel’s pain and sadness.

When a boat washes up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby of a few months, Tom, being a meticulous record keeper and a man of deep moral principles, wants to report the incident immediately.  But Isabel has taken the baby to her breast, still producing milk from the recent stillborn.  Isabel interprets the baby’s arrival as divine benevolence, God’s gift to them, while Tom struggles with not abiding by the rules of honest and accurate recording of the event. Against his better judgment he allows Isobel to keep the baby. They claim her as their own and name her Lucy.

For several years Lucy thrives on the island basking in the love of her parents and the safety of her world.     Although isolated, this family seems complete and everything they need is on the island.  But as Stedman tells us,  “the story throws up the role of isolation on morality...when you don’t see the impact of your actions.  Perhaps it’s easier to fool yourself when you cannot see the face of those who are affected by what you do.”

There, however, comes a point in the story when Tom and Isabel must confront other faces and as a reader, you become as torn as they are.  And that is when the author’s soul-searching questions are pondered:  “Is there error in an action motivated by best intention? Can a right make good a wrong? Is there wrong in greater good?” 

These universal themes as well as the strong imagery of place evoked captured the attention of nine British publishers, producing a six figure offer for Stedman’s first novel.  She interviewed each publisher, stubborn in her intent to find someone who recognized her endeavors to explore life’s eternal questions about truth, redemption and the nature of happiness.

Stedman goes on to say, “Happiness is a modern idea. I think we can live good enough lives when we don’t think we get the things we thought important.”

What’s important to Tom—doing what is right—drives this story.  I found it to be compelling and thought provoking. By creating many other believable characters. Stedman is able to make us see this situation from many viewpoints and draw our own conclusions. We are swept into a story about ordinary people seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.  It reminded me of many Jodi Picoult stories where moral issues are explored. Whereas her settings are contemporary, much of the beauty of this story is the setting--the time and place it evokes.  It would make a good discussion book choice.