Oh, the magnificence of the well-drawn character—well-drawn, mind you, not necessarily well-loved, and certainly not flawless and totally admirable. I adore a book that depicts the naked human spirit. The world is full of decent people making disastrous decisions. I love a book that can find the beauty in that. After all, we need a human soul for all of it to matter—and all human souls are imperfect. It’s easy—and rather bland—when we root for the true-blue hero, defender of right, protector of the meek.
It takes a brave writer to expose the human spirit with all of its weaknesses and misguided justifications, and to do it without judgment or excuse. M. L. Stedman does just that in The Light Between Oceans.
Tom Sherbourne survived doing what was necessary on the front in WWI, returning to Australia with his body and moral code intact but carrying shadow wounds on the inside. He feels if he can get away from people, time will banish those shadows. And so he accepts a posting as a lighthouse keeper on an uninhabited island off the coast. The isolation is complete, with only one ship arriving each season with supplies and a one-month leave at the end of three years. Soon he’s joined by his new bride, Isabel, a bold, spirited young woman.
For a time, all is well. Then, after miscarriages and a stillbirth in this remote place, Isabel is nearly broken. And one day, shortly after the stillbirth, a miracle (or a curse) arrives in a rowboat cast adrift with a dead man and a wailing infant. Suddenly Tom’s sure sense of right, the bedrock of his character, is compromised by his love and concern for his wife. Choices are made that will echo throughout not only their lives but those of others on the mainland.
Stedman bravely builds her story in that gray zone of character, both Tom’s and Izzy’s, and plumbs its depths to the max. She explores what happens when we’re willing to compromise our morality, not for our own happiness and gratification, but for that of a beloved. We experience Izzy’s brokenness in a way that helps us understand Tom’s desperation to save her. The Light Between Oceans paints an extraordinary experience of time and place. Even the pacing of the book enhances the sense of seclusion and moves with the stride of the times. Tom’s own emotional separation is reflected in the setting. He is somewhat aloof, and yet we feel him.
This book draws on strong emotions—whether you like or dislike Tom and Izzy, even if you condemn them for their choices, you will certainly understand the circumstances that set those choices in place. You will experience the depth of Tom’s love and Izzy’s wounded spirit. Stedman also shows with great clarity the profound effect of isolation on the human soul and how it can distort judgment in even the most upstanding and moral of us.
This is a thoroughly beautiful and tragic book, with two characters strong enough to carry you and your heart from the opening page until the last.
Susan Crandall is the author of several awarding-winning books. Her most recent novel, The Flying Circus, comes out in paperback in February 2016.