Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Light Between Oceans

In The Light Between Oceans, the first novel by Australian author M.L. Stedman, Tom Sherbourne is returned from having served in World War I when he takes a post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an isolated island where he's the sole inhabitant, and his sole human interaction comes from the store boat which visits four times a year. During his initial visit to mainland Port Partageuse before being shipped to Janus, Tom meets young, beautiful and bold Isabel Graysmark. Isabel makes him feel alive and is a balm to his dark memories of the war. After corresponding and confessing his love he caves to her assurances of a happy life together and they marry. At first the island is magical for Isabel and Tom alike, but after a number of years and what seems a lifetime of heartache caused by numerous miscarriages and one stillbirth, Isabel is no longer the vibrant free spirit of the past.

On the day of the miracle, as described by Isabel, she is tending to the small, newly made driftwood cross which lies besides two older crosses, when she hears a child's cry in the wind. Convinced it's in her mind, she answers Tom's call from the lighthouse that there's a boat on the beach. Together they make their way to investigate and find a small boat with the lifeless body of a man, but also wrapped in a woman's soft cardigan a beautiful baby girl. As Tom tends to the boat and body, Isabel takes the child to the lighthouse and as she lovingly tends to this child, warm and alive, so different from the little boy she lost only weeks ago, she falls in love; for "looking into those eyes was like looking at the face of God." And "that she could have arrived now, barely two weeks after...It was impossible to see it as mere chance." Upon Tom's return to the lighthouse, he quickly sets off to do his job and send a signal, report the discovery but Isabel asks for one night and he concedes; though in the morning letting go is even harder and Isabel begs to keep this child who is more than likely an orphan. A moral upstanding man, Tom is torn by Isabel's request, yet he loves his young wife and having witnessed her suffering, he relents and reluctantly gives in to her request.

Naming her Lucy, which means light, Isabel bestows on this small child all the love stored in her heart from those three lost children of her own; but while Tom loves Lucy, the guilt of his decision weighs on his mind and soul like an albatross and like an acid begins to erode his marriage. When over a year later the small family goes on shore leave and arrives on the mainland, they see firsthand the heartache wrought on someone else by their decision.

I read this book some months ago, during my blogging hiatus, and found it heartbreaking, hauntingly beautiful, and so bittersweet. Through this well-crafted story and beautifully written characters we are asked to ponder a serious moral dilemma and decide what we would do; I was surprised by my own answer to that question. Despite Tom holding the moral high ground in this story, it was Isabel that captured my heart. Her pain was so palpable through every loss, especially the stillbirth scene, it was gutwrenching. The description of how she lovingly and reverently cares for the body of this small being whom she loved sight unseen and anxiously, yet hopefully, awaited for, brought tears to my eyes and a knot in my throat. How can you experience and share in that pain and desolation and not understand and forgive her act of selfishness in keeping Lucy?

While Tom is obviously written to be the hero of this tale; the sacrificed, sympathetic figure burdened by the decision forced on him, I was instead angered by his obsessive need to do what was morally right, by his consuming concern with his peace of mind to the extent that it outweighed the love for his wife. Without spoiling parts of the book, I'll say that I saw the actions taken by Tom to supposedly right their wrong as a traitorous stab in the back of the woman who loved him, offered him solace, and gave him a family; and ultimately, when it comes right down to it, it is Isabel who ends up making the ultimate sacrifice for their love not Tom, so why is he the hero? I don't know if there is a hero in all of this or if they're all just victims of circumstance. I guess you'll have to read it to decide on your own.

This book is this close to perfect. I guess the best way for me to describe it is to say it was as breathtakingly beautiful as the most delicate and perfect of roses, yet like a rose, it had quite a few thorns.