Please be aware that there are spoilers in my post. I couldn’t write it any other way without it ending up just a mere outline. And in any case the description on Goodreads tells you as much if not more than this.
The Light Between Oceans is the story of Tom, a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island, Janus Rock, and his wife Isabel. Janus Rock is nearly half a day’s journey from the coast of Australia, where the Indian Ocean washes into the Great Southern Ocean. When a boat washes up on the shore of the island it holds a dead man – and a crying baby. Tom and his wife have a devastating decision to make.
Tom is a veteran of World War One and a man of high moral principles. He loves his job, meticulously and accurately recording all the daily details of his work on the lighthouse, keeping it all according to the rules and regulations. From his time during the war he had realised that rules are what separate a man from a savage. He wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has had two miscarriages and a still birth and is desperate to keep the baby. So he is torn, he loves Isabel and although he is not happy about the ease with which she made her decision, against his own judgement, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them, but by then there is no right answer – justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.
As for the dilemma that Tom and Isabel faced I’ve never been in Isabel’s position, but initially I did take sides, agreeing with Tom. But as time went on and Lucy grew older it became more difficult and as M L Stedman explores all the emotions all the characters are experiencing I could understand Isabel’s position a bit more. But then there’s the birth mother not knowing if her husband and baby are dead, but convinced they will return to her. It was heart breaking to read. An impossible situation.
I enjoyed the setting on Janus Rock, thinking it was a real island. But I was surprised to find it is entirely fictitious. In this interview M L Stedman explains that the region where the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet is real, and the climate, weather and the landscape are more or less as she has described them. She wrote some of the book there and describes as a very beautiful, if sometimes fierce, part of the world. I thought the ending was rushed, condensed into a few pages and I wondered if the story was based on fact. But there are no Historical Notes, so I’m assuming it is purely fictional. And this is borne out by the interview in which she says:
I write fairly instinctively, just seeing what comes up when I sit down at the page. For this story, it was a lighthouse, then a woman and a man. Before long, a boat washed up on the beach, and in it I could see a dead man, and then a crying baby. Everything that happens in the book stems from this initiating image—a bit like the idea of ‘Big Bang’—an initial point that seems tiny turns out to be incredibly dense, and just expanded outward further and further.
It’s set mainly in 1926, but does that make it historical fiction – I can’t decide, what do you think?