After serving in World War I and witnessing the deaths of many of his friends, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and finds solace working the lighthouse on the isolated island of Janus Rock. It’s a time when lighthouse keepers still served an important — albeit humble and underpaid — role, and the isolation of this particular lighthouse is something Tom embraces. He’s advised to find a wife and start a family to help ease sense the isolation, and he does eventually end up meeting his perfect match in the form of a headstrong, vibrant young woman named Isabel.
Isabel adapts well to life on Janus and the two are happy. But with time, a devastating problem begins to reveal itself: Isabel can’t have children. Tom is content to simply spend the rest of his life with Isabel, but for her, the inability to have children coupled with the extreme isolation of Janus has taken its toll and she’s inconsolable. One day, she hears the cries of a baby while she’s outside but chalks is up to grief. When the crying continues, she goes looking for the baby and indeed finds one: a small boat has washed up on shore, and there’s a dead man and a crying baby inside.
What happens next sets off a chain reaction that will affect the rest of their lives. Tom is required to report anything out of the ordinary immediately, but Isabel convinces him to wait until morning. Then morning comes, and Isabel starts trying to convince him that they should keep the baby, a “gift from God” that she’s already named Lucy. Seeing the life come back into his wife, Tom uneasily agrees.
They raise Lucy as their own, convincing themselves that she is an orphan, and for a while life on Janus is full of joy. When Lucy turns two, Tom’s vacation time comes up and Lucy gets to meet her grandparents and visit the mainland for the first time in her life. Only then do Tom and Isabel discover the truth about Lucy: her father may be dead, but her biological mother is alive and still clings on to the hope that her daughter is alive.
I am totally in love with this book. There’s a lot of emphasis on choices, and how a series of well-meaning, seemingly innocuous decisions can just snowball into something out of control. I don’t want to give too much detail about this because that’s the heart of the book, but I will say that Stedman produced a very nuanced story that leaves you feeling devastated for all parties involved, whether you agree with their actions or not. I also loved the way that history and lighthouse-related information is worked into the narrative.
Stedman’s descriptions are also beautiful:
There are times when the ocean is not the ocean — not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights when light is needed the most.
Another one I loved:
The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember … History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on — protected by the silence that anesthetizes shame.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this book is going to make it on my Best of 2012 list. It’s a gorgeous, memorable debut.
The Light Between Oceans was released on July 31, 2012 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.