The Light Between Oceans

Looking for a page-turner this summer? I can’t stop thinking about the novel I recently finished. It came along on our family’s beach vacation as an easy read, and it was easy in a “can’t-put-it-down” sense. But the book hit me in exactly that place life so often does: where doing what is right feels perilously unclear, so you make a choice and end up watching the pieces fall in a million unexpected places.

M.L. Stedman’s debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, is about a shattered Great War veteran, Tom, who finds a new direction by joining the lighthouse service in Western Australia. He takes a post on Janus Rock, a remote island half a day’s journey from tiny Partageuse, the nearest mainland town. Far from yielding to the moral ambiguity of the war, Tom finds solace in the rules, structure and relentless responsibility of life on the lights. His integrity is immediately appealing, and when he meets vivacious young Isabel on the mainland, herself grieving two brothers lost in the war, the connection begins to revive them both. They marry, create a private life together on the windswept island far out to sea, and joy begins to permeate two damaged lives. That is, until a succession of miscarriages and finally the devastating birth of a stillborn son thread fissures into their happiness. When, two weeks after the stillbirth, a boat washes ashore with a dead man and live baby inside, the fissures widen to cracks, and what follows is a journey between truth and assumption, the characters navigating dark places like the boats circling Janus Rock under the beam.

This is as far as the back cover copy will take you, and it’s as far as I can go without a spoiler alert. But this book led me to identify with its characters so closely I felt almost incapable of making better decisions than they. Stedman said, in an interview with Goodreads, “. . . As a reader myself, I love those moments when I read something and feel that someone I don’t know has truthfully captured an experience that is deeply personal to me.” Even though some of the context of the novel is unfamiliar, this was exactly my experience in reading The Light Between Oceans. I could taste the salt air on Janus Rock, cry for Isabel’s pregnancy losses and crack under the division as Tom and Isabel’s strongest needs took them in different directions. Once the novel’s wheels were set in motion, an obvious solution was so lacking, I found myself rolling, with the characters, through the stormy waters of uncertainty.

An intelligent love story

Stedman is a compelling writer, describing with equal intricacy the inner lenses and astragals of the light and the visceral bonds of parent/child love. The setting is so real it lives, and the characters — though not developed with the sheer breadth of, say, a Dickens or Dostoevsky novel — are compelling enough that the reader is deeply invested in their outcomes. You know you’ve stumbled on something good when you find yourself rooting for characters, willing them to make the right choices even when it seems impossible that they will. And even though the hinge event on which the book is based is unlikely, the way it plays out is anything but. In fact, I don’t know when I last cried at a book, at the sheer inevitability of the ending, the dire consequences of a choice, and yet felt convinced that it couldn’t have ended in any other way.

Stedman said of her novel, “I didn’t consciously decide to write a book about lighthouses, but I found they provided an incredibly rich metaphor: They betoken binary opposites such as safety and danger, light and dark, movement and stasis, communication and isolation — they are intrinsically dynamic because they make our imaginations pivot between those opposites.” These contrasts are the unspoken bedrock of the book – an intelligent love story that catches you between heart and head and makes you long for an outcome you know would never satisfy.

Disclaimer: I wouldn’t feel right recommending this as a great “summer” read without adding that it is not exactly light. But if you are looking for a novel that makes you think while it pummels your emotions into jelly, this is your book!


  • Emily Cramer

    Emily Cramer grew up in the Toronto area and spent most of her twenties living nomadically. She completed her English B.A. in New Brunswick (1999), burned through some existential angst in eastern Ontario and in Scotland, and finally wrapped up a Master’s in Christianity & the Arts in British Columbia (2008). She now lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband and daughter, where she works as a college Communications teacher and hopes to stay put, at least for awhile. She has been privileged with a number of writing opportunities over the years, such as a summer newspaper column on the natural environment and a novella for her graduating thesis, and is now feeling honoured to be able to explore the next leg of her travels - parenting and family life - with the CC.

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