The Light Between Oceans

For the Christmas holidays, most people choose books that fit the occasion, such as those about family or 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 a beautiful but melancholy tale about Tom Sherbourne, a war hero who became a lighthouse operator to isolate himself from his past. In getting a posting on the remote island of Janus along the coast of Australia, Tom looked forward to his isolation, performing his duty of operating and maintaining the light that will serve as a beacon to sailors at sea.  However, fate had other plans for Tom, who, on his first day in Partageuse, Australia, which is the mainland town nearest Janus Island, meets the young and charming Isabel, bright eyed and full of life and hope, who was 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 extinguishing of the lighthouse beacon.  He keeps himself busy by repairing not only the lighthouse but the small cottage assigned to him and 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 that brings him fresh supplies. However, during one of the boat’s visits, along with the usual supplies, it brings a letter from an unlikely sender. Tom receives a short letter from Isabel, and though not exactly sure why, he 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 became 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, but 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. However, when the time came for him to alert the mainland of the incident, Isabel begs him to put it off 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 a difficult decision to do his duty, which is to report the dead man and infant  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, and friends and neighbors.

Moving as it may be, The Light Between Oceans is a quiet book in which 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 the characters’ personalities and depth, focusing on their relationship rather than on events that would drive the plot forward.  The novel focuses on Tom’s inner thoughts and struggles against the ghosts of his past as well as coming to terms with his current life and the choices he’s made not only for himself but also for his family.

I read this novel during 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 “the most wonderful time of the year.”  It is a heavy novel that forces readers to carry the impossible burden that Tom had forced himself to carry.  It presents the conflict and poses the difficult question of, “What would you do in this situation?” causing readers to question their own morality.

I haven’t seen the movie, 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 agree with her assessment.  Oh, shit, indeed!


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

Random House; 345 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  3/5

7 thoughts on “The Light Between Oceans

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