Tom Sherbourne and his wife, Izzy, have very different outlooks and attitudes. It’s one of the things that drew them together, each attracted to the mystery of the other. When a boat washes up on the shore of their remote lighthouse island, carrying only a dead man and a crying baby, the choice that they make will bring them closer together, and set events in motion that could tear them apart.
The Light Between Oceans, by M L Stedman, is a beautiful and heart-breaking book about how difficult it can be to know the difference between the right and wrong choice, and the way that love and desperation can blind you further to the distinction between the two. The event that sets the story in motion is the arrival of a baby in a boat, cradled by a dead man, to the shore of an island inhabited by only two people. Tom, the lighthouse keeper, and his wife Isabel. That she wants to keep the baby is immediately apparent, that Tom doesn’t think that would be right is equally so, and their positions on the matter are as integral to their characters as their inability to come out and have a conversation about it.
In a nice touch, before an ultimate decision is reached on the baby’s fate the author takes us back in time to Tom’s arrival in the nearest town, his first meeting with Izzy, their long-distance courtship after he takes up his post in the lighthouse, and the events of their early life together that lead up to this life-changing event of the baby in the boat. Throughout all of this, woven through the various adorable moments of them getting to know each other and navigating cohabitation, there are clear signs that these are extraordinarily different people. Both nuanced, both interesting, both with totally understandable outlooks, but fundamentally extremely different.
The story follows Tom’s perspective most closely, with occasional peeks into Izzy’s point of view, which I think was a smart move. He’s the less demonstrative of the two, the one well-accustomed to keeping his feelings compartmentalised, and so through his eyes we see Izzy’s feelings writ large across the relationship, including her building frustration at his inability to meet her in either whole-hearted joy or the depths of misery. Of course, by the time we get back to the point where the first chapter left off, these are still resentments in progress. Izzy, faced with the possibility of having the baby she so desperately wants, simply trusts that eventually Tom will come around to her point of view. And while she’s resting reasonably easy in that knowledge, Tom is trying to believe that Izzy will recognise the inherent wrongness in not even attempting to look for the baby’s real family.
In fairness to them, there’s not a lot of room for compromise on this issue. You can’t half-keep a baby. So, inevitably, the conversation is put off repeatedly, with Tom allowing just a little more time, until he doesn’t feel it would be possible to separate Izzy from the baby, now named Lucy.
From here, the author deftly weaves together Tom’s helpless love for the baby with the unease and guilt of the decision they made to keep her. If I had one complaint about this it would be that I’d have liked to see more development in Tom’s guilty conscience – as it is, it feels like it begins and ends in the same place. That said, Tom’s feelings are expressed with more than enough clarity to make sense of the actions he takes as the story progresses.
The plot unfolds slowly at first, and then with a desperate inevitability, and the further into the story I got the less certain I felt of the outcome I wanted. In The Light Between Oceans, Stedman builds to a scenario where it truly seems like all choices the characters can make are just different degrees of heart-wrenching. It’s hard to read, precisely because of how well-constructed it is.
I won’t comment on how the eventual consequences of Tom and Izzy’s decision play out. I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself. Trying to determine the course of action likely to cause the least pain is, in my opinion, one of the key components of this particular reading experience, and I don’t want to say anything that might diminish that for anybody.
The Light Between Oceans would be suitable for most, if not all, readers. It contains some description of war injuries, and deals with miscarriages and parents losing children, but none of the descriptions are gratuitous or unnecessarily detailed, and the fallout is treated sensitively. If you enjoy stories with sympathetic, if troubled, characters and wrenching moral dilemmas, this would be an excellent choice for your next read.