Book Review – The Light between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light between Oceans contained the best overall story I’ve ever read in a debut novel. M. L. Stedman also introduced readers to very well-crafted characters. The book contained the most creative multi-layered conflict I’ve ever read. In addition to these achievements, Ms. Stedman wrote in lyrical language to tell this extraordinary tale.

The main action in the story occurred on the remote Australian island of Janus during the 1920s. After witnessing the carnage of the First World War, Tom accepted the job managing the lighthouse there. The carefree and naïve Isabel became his wife and joined him. The strain of isolation combined with three stillbirths placed an immense emotional strain on the marriage. Just weeks following Isabel’s last miscarriage a boat washed ashore. It contained a dead man and a living infant. Then the real drama commenced.

This author displayed exceptional skill in developing the characters. I admired the way she did so through conflict. As the lighthouse keeper, Tom emphasized his duty to report the incident to the authorities. Isabel argued otherwise. She surmised the man in the boat probably the child’s father. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume the mother dead under these circumstances? Wouldn’t the child get sent to an orphanage? Wasn’t it true that only they knew about the miscarriage a few weeks before? The opposing views and justifications behind them provided fantastic insight into the characters.

I won’t give away spoilers, but I will comment that the dynamic between the couple changed throughout the book. As the story progressed so did my perception of them. At times the author managed to transform them into villains. My astonishment and curiosity kept me reading to see how the novel would end. Along the journey, Ms. Stedman included a few superb plot twists and a red herring. They made the book a much more exciting read.

The author included many clever uses of language. I liked the alliteration in the expression, “seemed so solid she.” (Page 3) I enjoyed the simile, “the light stood guard, slicing the darkness like a sword.” (Page 34) The author even added a line that would’ve made Louis Zamperini proud: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” (Page 323)

My favorite lyrical passage described Tom’s thoughts on the island’s lighthouse:

But Janus light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. (Page 11)

I found one area where the novel could be improved. The author front-loaded The Light between Oceans with a lot of back-story. Since it occurred in the opening chapters, I had trouble understanding what the main story concept would be. Granted, the majority of the book took place on an isolated island inhabited by either two or three characters. It would’ve been challenging to describe both Tom’s and Isabelle’s backgrounds in that setting without it coming across as contrived.

Also, I thought some of the resolutions towards the end too abrupt; at least when compared to the pace the author established at the beginning. I thought the narrative could’ve been more balanced in that respect.

I would also like to credit the author for the creative title. It possessed both literal and symbolic meanings. It’s very challenging to condense a book’s content in a few words. It’s even harder to do so with a phrase containing multiple connotations. The Light between Oceans summarized the book brilliantly.

I have to give Ms. Stedman immense credit for a stellar debut. She crafted characters and managed the conflict between them like an expert storyteller. So far only one Australian has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is it premature to suspect another could be so honored in the future?

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