M.L. Stedman creates historical fiction based around a unthinkable choice in The Light Between Oceans. Set in the years between the World Wars and along the coast of South West Australia, it’s a unique period piece. And the choice its main characters make reverberates like waves crashing ashore.
Tom and Isabel live on a tiny island off the coast, where he tends the lighthouse, and she makes their home. They desperately want to add children to their family, but she has only miscarriages and stillbirths. It’s a heartbreaking situation in a time when no method beyond nature’s whims helped conception along.
But one night there’s a terrible storm. And as a result, they find a rowboat washed ashore. In the boat are a man and a baby. It’s apparent he died in some sort of medical distress, but the baby is just fine. And Isabel is recovering from a difficult stillbirth, with hormone changes and intense grief. She begs Tom to keep the baby and not notify authorities, which he’s legally required to do.
So, the book hinges on that one decision and its aftermath. Nothing like this happens in a vacuum, and in the nearest town people mourn the loss of the rowboat’s occupants. And the lighthouse keeper struggles with the agreement he made with his wife.
The Light Between the Oceans is two parts melodrama and one part mystery. There’s a side helping of character study since this is such a unique time, place, and situation. Stedman is a first-time author who skillfully blends all these elements.
Isabel is a kind and loving mother. But she’s also a spoiled only daughter used to having her way, which made her grate on my nerves sometimes. It’s easy to empathize with her sorrow about her childlessness. But the way she chooses to solve it is ultimately so hardhearted.
Tom is a wounded warrior, having survived the atrocities of World War I. He’s desperate to be loved and treats Isabel in the manner to which she’s become accustomed. She certainly wears the pants in this family.
So, Stedman sets up the conflict between the the princess and the principled husband at the heart of the story. And the little girl caught between those two oceans knows nothing of the havoc her presence at the lighthouse creates. Ultimately the story is about betrayal. Everyone except the child is culpable, especially as we learn what sent the man and baby into the rowboat in the first place. There are no heroes in this story, only fallible humans.
I recommend this 2012 novel if you’d like to escape the 21st century for several hours. It’s not long and the story is a slow burn. Hopefully though, you’ll want to find out how the situation resolves.
Pair with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton for another unique historical fiction book set in nearby New Zealand.