The Light Between Oceans: a Gordian knot of lies

The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012), is a book that will have you welling up with tears, especially if you are a parent or grandparent. Although it is almost cliché, there is only one word for it: heartbreaking.

I suppose I could do what other reviewers have undoubtedly done, and launch into a lengthy discussion of metaphor—the lighthouse between two oceans being the most obvious (Virginia Woolf was never my cup of tea, so I don’t want to go there). However, I will bypass the obvious metaphors and instead focus on the ethical and emotional content of this story.

This is a book about lies and the inordinate pain that they can cause.

The tragedy is that the people in this story are all truly decent individuals. When we meet Tom Sherbourne, he is comforting his wife, Isabel, after a miscarriage. Isabel and Tom wanted a baby so badly, but Isabel seems unable to carry one to term. Eventually, she loses three. After the third, Tom begins to worry for Isabel’s state of mind.

Tom and Isabel live on Janus Island, which sits between the Indian and Southern oceans (much is made of the name Janus, the Roman god who looks forward and back). On Janus, Tom is an employee of the government who keeps the light burning to warn commercial vessels of the danger of coming too close at night. It is a solitary existence, chosen by Tom to escape the post-traumatic stress of the war to end all wars; and by Isabel—a sweet girl Tom meets on the mainland of Western Australia—because she loves Tom more than anything. Their life together on the island is a perfect one wherein Tom can forget the pain and horror of war and lose himself in the arms of a woman who truly, truly wants and loves him. Their love is perfectly suited to solitude.

Author M. L. Stedman – Image Source: Random House Struik

But in time, the loss of not one but three children takes its toll. Their relationship suffers, and Isabel is near to a nervous breakdown.

Then, what Isabel would later (and ironically) refer to as “a miracle” happens.

A dinghy washes up on shore. In it is a dead man—and a very live infant. Isabel takes the infant into her arms, and immediately falls in love with her. When Tom insists that the infant be returned, Isabel begs him to keep the child, and offers convincing arguments as to why it would be the best thing. Tom is guilt-ridden, but also fearful for Isabel’s state of mind, so he falsifies the log book, buries the unfortunate man, and then proceeds to raise—and fall in love with—the little girl whom they name Lucy.

The falsified logbook was a lie, of course, as well as a crime against the Commonwealth. When Bluey and Ralph, two boatmen who deliver supplies quarterly to the island, show up they lie by introducing Lucy as their child. They lie when they go to the mainland to see Isabel’s parents and introduce them to their new grandchild. And they lie when the child is christened. In the end, Tom lies to Isabel about his own part in bringing about the discovery of their deception.

As Tom’s friend Ralph says when the truth of their situation is discovered, “There’s been lie upon lie, all with the best intentions.”

It will be four years before Lucy’s real mother discovers that the Sherbournes’ daughter is really her missing daughter, Grace, who disappeared with her father on a dinghy and has long been presumed dead (the circumstances under which they disappeared do not speak well of the inhabitants of the town). Now, the consequences of the lies will come with a vengeance because Lucy / Grace is old enough to suffer horribly at the loss of the only parents she ever knew, and the child’s birth mother must deal with the fact that her daughter not only does not know her but also hates her. As for Isabel and Tom, their lives are shattered—Tom may even face murder charges if the local constabulary has its way once the man’s body was discovered on Janus Island.

What will it take to untie the Gordian knot constructed of so many lies? But, more importantly, how is that such good people can lie so convincingly—and the lies don’t stop once they are discovered and Tom is arrested—when their emotions come into play? Tom and Isabel will not be the only liars in this tale. Untruth seems to be a recurring theme throughout.

To say much more would be to act as a spoiler, and I don’t wish to do anything to keep someone from reading this very fine and complex debut novel. Little is known about M. L. Stedman (she is very close-mouthed about herself, and insists that who she is isn’t as important as the story she tells—I couldn’t agree more), other than that she hails from Western Australia and now lives in London (read an interview with Stedman in the Sydney Morning Herald). What matters is her very remarkable first novel.

There were several times when I choked up while reading this book. I can still remember the smell of my infant children when I held them, though they are now grown, and I can only imagine the suffering of Isabel when her child is wrenched screaming from her arms; or of half-crazed Hannah (Lucy / Grace’s birth mother) when her child rejects and even despises her. Or Tom, the man who lived his life honorably (winning a Military Cross and Bar for gallantry) but who went against his conscience because he loved his wife; and whose life was changed forever by the little girl who would come to know him as “Dadda,” the child he would love more than he could have imagined—his pangs of conscience notwithstanding.

Stedman’s debut novel is a story that you won’t easily put down and which, when finished, you won’t soon forget.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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