Friday, March 8, 2013

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman is a moving novel which explores the often gray line between right and wrong. Tom Sherbourne is back from World War I, where he has witnessed and participated in the atrocities of war. Seeking to heal, he takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on a remote Australian island. The job suits Tom. Here he can continue to serve his country in a capacity that only saves lives. Like the light he maintains to perfection, Tom is guided by his own internal light. He has an innate moral compass--a quality that causes him pain when he recalls the killing he witnessed and committed during the war. The routines of caring for the complicated machinery in the lighthouse provide respite from the chaos he formerly experienced.

All this changes when Tom meets and marries the spirited Isabel. At 19, she is as innocent of life as Tom is tainted by it. The story traces their relationship from the time she comes to live in the lighthouse to her death some 40 years later. In between lies an act that will change their lives forever.

When a boat lies shipwrecked on the beach with its sole survivor-- a baby-- Isabel claims the child as her own. She rationalizes that the mother has fallen overboard; its father lies dead in the hull. Tom becomes complicit it this lie, unable to bear his wife's loneliness and yearning for a child. But unlike Isabel, he is wracked by guilt and the knowledge that he has committed a grievous wrong.

You could kill a bloke with rules, Tom thinks during a sleepless night.  And yet sometimes they were what stood between man and savagery, between man and monsters. The rules that said you took a prisoner rather than killed a man. The rules that said you let the stretchers cart the enemy off from no-man's-land as well as your own men. But always, it would come down to the simple question: could he deprive Isabel of this baby? If the child was alone in the world? Could it really be right to drag her away from a woman who adored her, to some lottery of Fate? (p. 104-105)

Stedman uses evocative language and dark imagery as she describes the island and the surrounding emptiness. One is bound to wonder if the confluence of desperation and isolation can obscure an obvious moral choice. Or is the truth too bright for close examination?

The Light Between Oceans is a riveting book from the first page to the last.

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