The Light Between Oceans

During the Holidays, most people choose to read books more fitting the occasion, about family, or about things warm and fuzzy…

I decided to read M.L. Stedman’s debut novel, The Light Between Oceans.  Yes, the one recently turned into a movie, starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.  Those who have read the novel or seen the movie know that it’s not exactly the kind of book you’d choose to read during Christmas.  In fact, it’s not the kind of book you’d want to read if you don’t want to depress the hell out of yourself.

The Light Between Oceans is beautiful but equally melancholy tale of Tom Sherbourne, a war hero, turned lighthouse operator, in hopes of isolating himself from his past. When getting a posting on the remote island of Janus, along the coast of Australia, Tom looked forward to his isolation, to perform his duty, to operate and maintain the light which will serve as a beacon of hope to sailors at sea.  Fate had other plans for Tom, however, when, on his first day arriving at Partageuse, Australia, the mainland town nearest Janus Island, he meets the young, and charming Isabel, bright-eyed and full of life and hope, born and raised in the small coastal town.

Tom spends his days and nights alone on Janus Island, marking the days by the lighting and putting out of the light of the lighthouse.  He keeps himself busy by repairing not only the lighthouse, but the small cottage assigned to the island’s caretaker, as well as tending the island and its small inhabitants of goats and chickens.  He keeps an impeccable record of his upkeep of the lighthouse, careful to record everything that happens on a daily basis.  Tom’s only interaction with other people comes every three months, with the boat bringing fresh supplies.  During one of the boat’s visit however, along with the usual supplies, it brings with it a letter from an unlikely sender.  Tom receives a short letter from Isabel, and though not exactly sure why, Tom writes back, marking the start of their long-distance courtship, which ends with the inevitable marriage, when Tom’s assignment on Janus ends a year later.

Tom’s life changes when he brings Isabel to live with him on Janus Island.  Days spent on the lighthouse, doing repairs in silence become days filled with love and companionship, and soon, Tom and Isabel prepare for the arrival of their first child.  Tragedy hits the couple as Isabel miscarries their first baby, and it seems like their world – her world, has suddenly gone dark.  As each new pregnancy ends in miscarriage, Isabel despairs, and just when everything seemed lost, a small boat with a dead man and an infant – alive and healthy, washes up on the shores of Janus Island.  Tom rushes to rescue the child who is obviously cold and hungry after spending god knows how many days at sea, but when the time came for him to alert the mainland of the incident, Isabel begs him to put it off for a little while while she cares for and comforts the frightened baby – a baby whom Isabel thinks is god’s gift to her to replace all the ones she’d lost.  Tom, wanting to comfort his wife, is faced with the hard decision of doing his duty – to report the dead man and infant washed up on shore, in hopes that a family is waiting for them in the mainland, or to give his wife the one thing that he knows would truly make her happy.

The Light Between Oceans is a moving story of love and loss, and the battle between personal desire and morality.  It highlights not only the strength and will of the human spirit, but also its frailty and vulnerability.  The novel also tackles the power of human relationships, between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors.

Moving as it may be, The Light Between Oceans is a quiet book, wherein nothing significant happens most of the time.  For the most part, the novel describes the day-to-day life of Tom and Isabel on Janus Island.  Chapters are filled with short vignettes about their daily routine, showing each of the characters’ personalities and depth, focusing on their relationship rather than events that would drive the plot forward.  Tom being the protagonist of the novel, it focuses more on the workings of his mind, and on his struggles against the ghosts of his past, as well as in coming to terms with his current life and the choices he’s made, not only for himself, but also for his family.

As mentioned earlier, I read this novel in the days leading up to Christmas, and let me tell you, this is NOT the kind of book you’d want to be reading during a time of the year when everyone is supposed to be happy and joyful.  It is a heavy novel which forces readers to carry the impossible burden that Tom had forced himself to carry.  It lays down the conflict and poses the difficult question to readers of “what would you do in this situation?”causing readers, in turn, to question their own morality.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I don’t know if I really want to, but from Tom’s description in the novel, I’d say that Michael Fassbender is a perfect fit (besides the fact that I LOVE Michael Fassbender). Before reading the novel, I had asked my sister, who has seen it, to describe the movie:

 – It was depressing.

 – Like Cold Mountain depressing? Like English Patient, depressing?

 – No…more like….Atonement depressing.

 – That’s not depressing, that’s more of an “Oh, shit!” kinda movie….

 – Yes, exactly…..

At the time I didn’t understand what she meant, but after reading it, I understood, and agreed with her assessment.  Oh, shit, indeed!


The Light Between Oceans (2012) – M.L. Stedman

Random House; 345 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  3/5


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