Monday, May 13, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman is another novel set in the aftermath of WWI, dealing with people who must move on with their lives while struggling with the losses of the war. The protagonists are Tom Sherbourne and his wife, Isabel.

Tom is a good man through and through who is suffering from survivor’s guilt after coming through four years of service on the Western Front. Not only that, but he’s carrying some pretty heavy baggage from a messed-up childhood. After the war, he took on the job of lighthouse keeper. Tom likes the solitude, rules, and routines–it’s therapeutic. He isn’t even daunted by a posting to a lighthouse as lonely as Janus Rock, an island off the Australian coast, where he is left without human contact for three month stretches at a time, relieved only by the quarterly arrival of a supply boat.

Nevertheless, in the small port town of Partageuse, the jumping off point for Janus, Tom meets a young woman named Isabelle Graysmark. She is lively and flirtatious. They hit it off from the start. Despite the limited time available for courtship, they commit to one another after a couple of letters and are soon wed.

Life on the island is idyllic in many ways, but not perfect. Tom is not a "sharer." Isabel is lonely. A baby would make everything better, but Isabel loses three pregnancies in fairly quick succession. She becomes angry and resentful. There isn’t anything Tom can do to help.

And then, one evening, just after Isabel has delivered a stillborn boy, a boat washes ashore. In it, there is a dead man and a healthy baby girl. Tom knows that it is his duty to signal to the mainland and make a report. Isabel convinces him to wait, just until morning. Morning stretches to the next day and the next. Isabel says the baby is a gift from God. The mother must be dead, drowned. They can’t send the baby off to an orphanage. The baby needs them. For Tom, rules are meant to be followed, but Isabel accuses him of heartlessness. Tom is anything but heartless.

This book is painful to read. It’s easy to understand the yearning and love behind the bad decisions made all around. And yet, the inevitable disaster looms from the minute they claim that baby as their own. It’s an interesting story, because there aren’t really any bad people. There are just people desperate enough to justify actions that are wrong as can be, and who are pitiful enough that it’s difficult to judge them too harshly–until you put yourself in the shoes of the person who was devastated by what they have done.

The Light Between Oceans is an emotionally gripping story. And the details of the life of a lighthouse keeper are fascinating.

I’m counting this as both a historical challenge book (Historical Tapestry hosts) and a library reading challenge book (hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair).