“Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all. It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.”
Tom Sherbourne comes home to Australia from the Great War craving quiet and solitude. He finds peace and purpose working on the lighthouses that guide ships through the treacherous waters off the shores of Australia. When he takes a relief posting as the keeper of Janus Rock, a lighthouse located on an island half a day’s journey off shore, he meets Isabel Graysmark in the port town of Point Partageuse. Theirs is a whirl-wind romance, and soon Tom and Isabel are married, and she joins him on Janus, where their only other human contact is the supply boat that visits four times a year. Their time on the Lights begins happily, but after two miscarriages and stillbirth, Isabel is a shadow of the woman she once was. Then, into that void, comes a small boat, containing a dead man and a live baby. Against Tom’s better judgement, they bury the man’s body, and claim the baby as their own. But when they receive shore leave two years later, and return to Point Partageuse to introduce Lucy to her grandparents, the Sherbournes must face up to the fact that their choice has had consequences for people outside their family. Lucy’s real mother, Hannah, is very much alive, and she has never stopped believing that her husband and daughter may somehow have survived.
Australian-born author M.L. Stedman has perfectly captured the setting and atmosphere of the lighthouse island and its romantic isolation. Through Tom’s eyes we see the beauty of the island and the ocean, and feel the appeal of what is now a dead way of life. The island is almost a character in its own right, colluding in the conspiracy by hiding the body of Lucy’s real father beneath its soil. But it is also this beauty and isolation that allows Tom and Isabel to fool themselves about the morality and consequences of their choice. They see the beautiful childhood they are giving Lucy on the island, and are blind to the pain of the far-away family they have snatched her from. Faced with the choice of reporting the baby, or keeping her, the only thing Tom can see is that not being able to have a child is killing Isabel, and that he finally has the power to do something about it.
The Light Between Oceans is a novel about the far-reaching implications of one fateful choice, and the clash between Tom’s morals and his love for Isabel. After bringing her to live on the Lights, he feels obligated to give her the life she envisioned when she agreed to marry him, and is devastated by the fact that there is nothing he can do to save their children. Their childlessness is slowly destroying their marriage as Isabel descends into depression, but although Lucy brings Isabel back to life, the decision to keep her haunts Tom, and soon it is his misgivings that are tearing them apart. The hardest part in all of this is that no one seems to be thinking of Lucy, or putting her best interests first, and the longer she stays with the Sherbournes the harder it is for them to tell the truth. But as Lucy grows older and becomes more attached to her adopted family, the reader becomes implicated in the deception, not wanting Lucy to have to experience the pain of losing the only family she can remember. Lucy cannot both remain with the Sherbournes, and be reunited with the mother who misses her so terribly, and it is this dilemma which really forces the reader to relate to the difficult choices the Sherbournes must make once they learn about Hannah. No one character retains the moral high ground, and it would be easy to dislike them all, but it is the gray area between what we want and what is right that makes this novel interesting.