There’s a tagline on the front cover of this book that says, “This is a story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same.” It could more accurately and easily have read, “This is a story of selfishness and how sometimes people don’t care what’s right if it gets in the way of their own happiness.”
The Light Between Oceans is the debut novel of ML Stedman and we know before we even open the front cover what is going to happen because of the blurb. Tom, a lighthouse keeper on a tiny remote island off the Western Australia coast, and Isabel, his wife, find a crying baby inside a dinghy that has washed up on the shore. With the baby is the body of a dead man. And instead of reporting their find, the couple who have lost three of their own babies to miscarriage decide to keep the child as their own and bury the man’s body in an unmarked grave. Their life of isolation allows them to successfully pass the baby off as their own.
But back on the mainland is a mother stricken with grief because of years of imagining what has become of her husband and child, mingled with a hope of seeing them again that all others have long since given up.
There’s nothing surprising about this book. It’s not hard to see that there will be a tug of war between two sets of parents over the love and custody of only one child. It’s not hard to see that instead of one life ruined if the baby had been returned when it should have been, there will be many lives ruined and turned upside down.
The novel is well-written and well-edited (except that whoever edited it doesn’t know how to spell the word “focused” – it appears over and over with the double s) but it took me a long time to read it because nothing ever happened that surprised me, nothing that urged me on and on, nothing that made me want to keep reading instead of doing something else.
The setting for the novel and the landscape it contains are triumphs. Janus Rock, where the lighthouse is, and Point Partageuse, the nearest town that supplies the island every three months, are idyllic and harsh in equal measure and as important as any character in the book. The historical period, straight after World War I, in which so many people have lost so much, is also just as important; I think it would have been difficult to tell this story earlier or later and have the choices be choices rather than decisions of fate.
But the characters are boring. There’s a hint here and there of someone interesting – Bluey’s mother as she urges him to turn Tom and Isabel in for child stealing and claim a huge reward – but they’re few and far between and disappear without a trace. And so we’re only left with an array of people whose primary concern is their own wishes without regard for responsibility or consequence. Ultimately, that makes it difficult to care about them and as I’m sure you can tell, I became consumed instead with the selfishness of all of them.
If you like historical Australian fiction, you’ll probably like this. If you like historical romance fiction, you’ll probably like this. But if you’re looking for a genuine exploration of hard choices and a complex storyline with an ending that makes you wonder if there really is ever right and wrong on offer at all, this isn’t the book you’re looking for. Apart from anything else, it gives away too much in the beginning and then expects the reader to stay with it while it winds back the clock and ignores the main premise of the book for a long, long time. I hung in there but only just. I attribute that to the writing and the setting because the characters and the plot certainly had little to do with why I persisted.
The Light Between Oceans could have been better but it could have been worse, too. Hardly the greatest of recommendations but I suspect it will have plenty of fans who enjoy this sort of book, which doesn’t ask too much beyond the suspension of disbelief, a blind eye to selfishness and a few weeks of your time.
*First published on Goodreads 1 December 2015