There were two reasons that I was initially attracted to The Light Between Oceans: Firstly, a slight obsession with wanting to live in a lighthouse and secondly, a blurb from Markus Zusak. I wanted to read a book about desolation and the emotions that come with that and I’m pleased to say that Stedman depicts the loneliness of a lighthouse keepers life wonderfully, even when he is accompanied by his wife.
The story follows Tom Sherbourne as he meets Isabel and the two fall in love. Tom has returned from fighting in the First World War a broken man and he is constantly fighting his own inner turmoil from everything he has witnessed. He believes that a quiet life on Janus Rock tending the lighthouse is his calling and when Isabel joins him they believe life is almost perfect, all they are missing is a child.
Sadly, despite the constant pregnancies there are also many miscarriages and Isabel is left bereft with no baby of her own. It’s not long before a boat is found smashed on the rocks of Janus with a man dead at the helm and a baby piercing the night with its cries. The baby girl is brought inside the lighthouse and Isabel convinces Tom that it was God’s will to deliver this baby unto them. They keep her.
What Stedman does brilliantly well is write with a suspenseful pen. Even before the baby is found and named Lucy, there’s a sense of foreboding throughout the words. We know that their life cannot exist in this way, what they’ve done is wrong. We watch as their relationship becomes fraught with guilt and the couple soon begin to have differing opinions on how they dealt with the situation.
Stedman uses this tension to build towards a superb final third of the book. In the middle I found the descriptions of the wind and the sea a little overbearing – there are only so many times you can describe the wild conditions of the oceans. While the middle section is needed to depict the family surviving, it felt a little padded and I found my mind wandering. As soon as the story twists, however, the book becomes a powerhouse and sucks the reader in as we find ourselves deciding on whose side to fight.
Stedman isn’t afraid to polarise the readers when it comes to the cast, either. Particularly with Isabel whom we love from our first meeting but who soon becomes obsessed with the lie they have constructed. It’s hard to like her because we know what she did is wrong. The book also touches on many issues of everyday life from Xenophobia to mental health and with this being set in the early 20th century; many attitudes are likely to stir the emotions of the audience.
The final third of the book is gripping from one page to the next and above all, heartbreaking. The events that play out over those final pages will have you on the edge of your seat as the cast are pulled every which way and so is the reader.
2012 seems to be a year with knockout debut writers coming to the front and showing the world how to write. To think that this is Stedman’s first work is baffling. The writing is beautiful and the world created is utterly beguiling. I’ve never wanted to escape into the pages of a book more. I certainly walked away from the book feeling as if I’d been through the wringer.
The book deals with the best and worst of humanity and society while still delivering a competent story of love and loss. The Light Between Oceans will linger on long after the final page has turned. The prose is beautiful and full of raw emotion and power. A wonderful debut from a promising writer.
Published by Doubleday. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.