Reading the prepublication press about M. L. Stedman's novel set in Australia on a remote lighthouse island, I was intrigued by the possible story. Several children's books and legends center around a lonely couple finding a baby who has washed ashore. Those stories have magical qualities and, of course, fairytale endings. Certainly an adult novel would focus on the myriad of problems of keeping a child that was not your own, wouldn't it? Wouldn't such a premise be the fodder for a complex, compelling tale? Well, The Light Between the Oceans does not disappoint. By the time I had read the first chapter, I knew that Tom and his life would be examined again and again by countless readers and book clubs.
Tom Sherborne had survived World War I, but his dreams and even his days are haunted by the visions of his ttrench mates being killed. Even worse are the memories of his own violence against men he would probably extended a hand to if they had met on the street. Partly because of these memories, and partly because he has nothing and no one to go home to, Tom has plotted a new life as a lightkeeper, being assigned to a remote island, Janus Rock, off the Australian coast. Supply boats only come once a season and Tom will remain on island for two years or more without shore leave, but Tom feels the daily routine of polishing the lenses, lighting the light, and meticulously recording each detail will be a perfect fit.
But Tom’s vision of the future changes before he even leaves for Janus Rock when he meets young strong willed Isabel. She begins to write him letters and eventually convinces Tom that the solitary lighthouse life would be more rewarding with a mate. And life is good at Janus Rock despite the isolation and harsh weather, but the Isabel’s joyful essence diminishes as the couple fails to have children. Over the years there are two miscarriages and then a stillborn. Each loss distinguishes more of Isabel’s zest. Then just weeks after Tom had buried the stillborn boy in a lonely little grave, Isabel hears a baby’s cry. At first she doubts her own sanity, but then she hears the sound again and sees a dinghy washing up on the shore. Inside the couple find a man, apparently dead from exposure to the elements or perhaps from a heart attack, and beside him a young baby, not more than a few weeks old. Immediate concern is to warm and fed the infant, but then the couple must decide what to do. Officially, Tom knows he should report the find in his log and signal for help, but his heart is nudged by his wife’s pleas to let things rest for a time. And that begins a lie that consumes their lives for the next four years as the couple passes the young girl off as their own child, an easy task since no one on the mainland knew about the stillbirth. Little Lucy has a healing affect not only on grieving Isabel, but also on Isabel’s parents who have never gotten over their sons’ deaths in the war. And Tom himself cannot imagine a moment without his little shadow as together they explore the island and care for the light. But Tom’s delight in fatherhood is always tinged by guilt, a guilt that grows and grows each year. Where does Lucy really belong and how can he and Isabel continue to live a lie? But how can he possibly think about hurting the woman that he has pledged to honor and protect?
At this point, I believe this is my favorite book of the year. According to my list, I am almost at the one hundredth book point for 2012, so ranking The Light between the Oceans as number one is strong praise. Last time I looked there were over 60 holds on this title in our library system, so I believe others have heard the word that this is a great read! Book clubs will delight over the complex issues of honesty, protection, and love for a child, all pitted against each other. As I watched Lucy grow and the “adopted” parents love increase, I kept seeing my granddaughters and all the sweet things they did at that age. My strongest image was of my now two year old granddaughter and the precious love triangle that she, her mother, and her father have. Over the past two years we’ve seen a family bloom. Isabel and Tom experienced the same, except their family was a lie. My recommendation – buy the book (e-book or hardcopy) or get your name on a holds list at your library. You won’t be disappointed.