The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman | a review

Monday, 23 May 2016

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

I knew next to nothing going into this book, and because of that, and because I loved this book so much with all its pain, I won't give anything away or even attempt to describe the story or plot. But this book. . . this book was heartbreaking and so painful that the ache felt tangible and horrifying at certain moments. It hurt. It dug deep into the emotions, heartbreak and struggles of the human soul, and it resonated deeply with me. 

"The Light Between Oceans" was one of those gut-wrenching reads that made me cry more than heart-tears - this book made me weep! Those last two chapters. . . .*heart breaks quietly*. Yet this book is so beautiful, I don't have quite the words for it. 

This story had a way of wrangling my emotions, but also gripping me with the painful beauty of life and man's conscience, and how we have to face the consequence of our actions in a bitter but honest way. Something that I loved about "The Light Between Oceans" was how brutally upfront and honest it was about facing up to one's wrongs and finding forgiveness; in a way it hurt too much, and I wished for an easier, happier way for the characters, but that gritty truth and love made the story and the struggles of the characters all the more real and genuine. 

The characters were richly developed, and very vivid - I think I see people just a little differently because of this book. Tom is my favourite thing about this book, obviously. He's the kind of character one would read from an A. J. Cronin novel - that quiet, suffering, heartbroken man, mutely enduring his pain and always thinking of others. Isabel - yes, there were moments I had a very hard time with her character; her choices and attitudes were so maddening sometimes, but through it all I understood her character, and her pain and I often wept for her, because of how she started out as a character, how happy and wild and sweet she used to be, and what she lost. 

Hannah's character was probably the most that I felt needed developing, but I think in the end the story was really about Tom and Isabel and their choices and life. Another thing I loved was how the minor characters were beautifully written and felt so real and relatable. I feel like they were the kind of people I'd meet at a church Fete or community outing. Ralph and Saptimus and Gwen were my favourite!
I loved the setting of the story, how it was an island, and we got to experience the life of a lighthouse-man, and a small town on the Western coast of Australia. That was just beautiful and a delight. The era was also well-written, with the pain and turmoil of the post-war years depicted poignantly for all the characters and how it effected them each in different ways. The pain that the war brings, the guilt, the loss, the change. . . the questions about life!

The writing was perhaps the best part - so so good. So lyrical and quietly descriptive yet vivid and alive. I loved the way the author described with little phrases and hints the Australian life in post-war Western Australia, the way of life in the 1920s, the Aussie bush and nature, the quiet-way-of-life. Ah, folks, if nothing else, just read this book for the poetry of words and the beauty that this author makes you feel while reading this story! 

“The oceans never stop ... the wind never finishes. Sometimes it disappears, but only to gather momentum from somewhere else, returning to fling itself at the island ... Existence here is on the scale of giants. Time is in the millions of years; rocks which from a distance look like dice cast against the shore are boulders hundreds of feet wide, licked round by millennia ...” 
― M.L. StedmanThe Light Between Oceans

“It is a luxury to do something that serves no practical purpose: the luxury of civilization.” 

(Just a wee note: sometimes characters do swear a bit; not obsessively - just a lot of the word "bloody" being thrown around, especially if they are really angry. Mostly those who swear are the WW1 soldiers; I personally wasn't overtly upset by it as it felt accurate to the situations, and not tacked on just to be crude or shocking. Just thought I should mention it as something to keep an eye for). 

Another thing that surprised me, with this being a secular novel, was how Christian this story was, and written in a way that fit very accurately to the religious sensibilities of the times, without scorning it. Here are characters who pray, who seek forgiveness from God and have struggles with their moral conscience. They ask questions about God's Providence. What suffering means, and how to endure their guilt. It didn't go the easy path of telling a story, of making it sugar-sweet, or making you approve of what is wrong. There was pain and punishment for wrong-doing, but also forgiveness and moving on in love. I was so pleasantly surprised. 

Something I am super nervous about when reading modern adult novels, is the content on the romance front, but I was pleased that it was clean, without steamy explicit scenes. Saying that though, this novel definitely has some mature and difficult themes, especially about childbirth, miscarriage, marriage-struggles and parenthood that I would not recommend for younger readers. This story can sometimes make you feel gutted and heartbroken. But it ended up leaving me deeply moved and touched in a powerful way.

Minus the little bit of swearing, and feeling so gutted sometimes from how painful the story was, I loved this book to bits. So beautiful and soul-challenging. Basically I'd pitch it as an A. J. Cronin literary vintage novel (i.e. Northern Lights) set in the Australian country sea-scape instead of the highlands of Scotland meets the Jane Eyre of moral-dilemmas and the physiological tug-of-war that you'd find in a novel like Rebecca. 

Basically, my bookish friends, go forth and read it!

M.L. Stedman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London. The Light Between Oceans is her first novel.

P.S. Though I have shared pictures from the new motion picture adaption of "The Light Between Oceans" 2016 starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't recommend it.

The Woman In White | a review

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

'In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'
The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

My Thoughts:
To enter in what all my thoughts were for this novel, would require much time. Which sadly I'm pressed for. But I so very badly want to review this book, because it was a wonderful, intense and rich story - and I loved it to bits! So we'll attempt it anyway. 

Oh my goodness, where do I begin and end with this review? This is a fascinating, thrilling story and one that will engage you thoroughly in its drama. As Collins himself describes it, “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.” This perfectly sums up The Woman in White, but without hinting at the depth and complexities that such a tale could delve into.

The Woman in White had so many favourite elements in it for me, though sometimes the story got morbidly dark, chillingly intense and heartbreakingly sad (and it's not like I don't like a bit of the bittersweet in my stories after all ;). For lovers of the Victorian Gothic novel, the story had many of the deliciously eerie elements of ghostliness, spooky encounters at graveyards and haunted mansions, baronets with dark secrets and even a burning fire that reminds you of Bronte's Gothic romance Jane Eyre. It had, in typical Victorian literature style, the romance and heartbreak, complex plots, morbid villains and fascinating rich characters that one would find in a Charles Dickens novel (no surprise there as Collins and Dickens were close friends!). . . 
And it had the thrilling, analytic drive of a mystery and detective-law investigation especially from the drawing-master Walter that brings to one's mind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's use of the science of deduction in Sherlock Holmes and makes you keep reading in desperation to ascertain the facts and fate of our characters. Fascinating tidbit, Collins was actually one of the first mystery-writers of the Victorian age, and in the character of Mr. Walter Hartwright, one can detect traits of an investigator and detective that reminds of you of the Baker-Steet Sleuth himself! In that way, the story had a thrilling, intense appeal to me and captivated me with almost every page.

My favourite aspects of this story were the Gothic mystery plotting and unravelling of the investigation, the richness of the characters and the interest I had in reading the different narratives of the different texts (I loved the use of unreliable narrators - let's talk about Mr. Fairlie's account, haha!), the strength and virtue of Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartwright's characters who warmed my heart to them, the fragility and exploration of insanity/mental breakdowns of Laura Fairlie and the "woman in white", the subtle hinting of themes in regards to the rights of women without a voice if they were afflicted, the multi-dimensional portrayal of the antagonists Sir Perceval Glyde and Count Fosco, and most of all the way in which the characters fought the evil of wicked men with perseverance, determination but most of all uprightness and integrity. 

It was so good! 

Because lists make our world go round (some say it's chocolate, but I'll dispute that in favour of a good cup of tea!), I'll list aspects (in no particular order) that I loved and surprised me about this story. And when you're done reading, go forth and read this rich novel! Okay?! Okay. 
1. Marian Halcombe was my favourite character, and possibly she's been added to one of my all time favourites in literature, generally. She's a wonderful, strong young lady of courage and wisdom, straightforward bluntness and humour and I just loved her immensely. <3 For all my initial doubts about how he'd portray a female heroine in such a deep drama, I think Collins definitely handled her with a great deal of sympathy and accuracy as a female protagonist in a Victorian era (it made me smile to see such a virtuous, plucky and strong woman in a tale soaked with danger and dark deeds, and to be honest, for all the "strong female" leads of modern YA works, Marian knocks them off with her little finger - she's just so brave and caring!) Way to go, Marian! :)

“No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman.” 

2. Mr. Fairlie - one can't help laughing over that irascible, nervous-wreck of a grump. I mean seriously, his nerves are the most horrifying nuisance for all characters concerned, and it shows just how good an author Collins is to make you enjoy reading that man's nervous protestations. 

“Tears are scientifically described as a Secretion. I can understand that a secretion may be healthy or unhealthy, but I cannot see the interest of a secretion from a sentimental point of view.” 

3. The duo of the two main villains - Sir Percevial Glyde and his friend Count Fosco were dark, treacherous, sadistic, calculating and in a horrible way delectable to read about because they were so well developed and vividly portrayed. There deeds were terrible, and as it unfolded, you felt increasingly repulsed and horrified. Glyde's story was the most morally challenging and heartbreaking, and I have a lot of feels about that ending *sighs*. Also I really appreciated the truth represented that a sin finds a person out. But Fosco was my favourite, just because his character made me laugh one moment and shudder the next. As a general word of caution, avoid making the bosom friend of any Italian Count with a strange affinity for white mice, dramatic operas and submissive wives who wrap their husbands' cigars. ;)

“I am thinking,’ he remarked quietly, ’whether I shall add to the disorder in this room, by scattering your brains about the fireplace.”
4. The unreliable narrators fascinated me immensely. We get to read from several different voices throughout the text, and its quite unpredictable and shocking from which courters we sometimes hear the narratives told. The more untrustworthy the character was, the more intense and gripping the reading becomes. Mrs. Anne Catherick was one of the most intriguing, and of course Mr. Fairlie the most ridiculous fun, but I think it is fair-game to say the most horrifying and gripping was Count Fosco's brief accounts. *shudders* The main narrations fluctuate between Mr. Walter Hartwright and Marian Halcombe, and my favourite was naturally Marian's. I was quite crestfallen when Marian's part of the narration ended, (may I say rather briskly?) and much as I loved Hartwright's character, Marian had a certain amount of spunk and vividness which was an absolute thrill to read (think of Jane Eyre's narrative-strength).

5. The writing. This is solid, rich writing and I loved every bit of it! This novel has its weakness, I'll admit, mostly in its strength of plotting and pacing - sometimes building up to a certain vivid heat of intensity, and then resolving the conflict almost prematurely in a rushed sequence of mad coincidences, etc. However, apart from a particular point midway where I felt disappointed with where the story seemed to turn (I presumed it was turning into a dark Gothic romance, abet like Jane Eyre, but it took a rather sudden turn and became very much a detective/mystery), and being a little bemused at a rather rushed ending, those very coincidences and revelations give you the drive to read on and discover the different layers and complexities of the thick mystery. To be honest, it was wonderful to see it unfold, like onion peals! 
6. Mr. Walter Hartwright, though by no means a perfect character, was a very honourable young man and I really loved his devotion to Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian, and his purposed determination to bring to right their wrongs, without gain for himself. His gentlemanly love for Laura, his painful maturity in regards to the unhappy circumstances around Laura's engagement, and his deep regard and friendship for Marian were truly endearing. 
7. The bond of close sisterhood and love between Marian and Laura was the most beautiful and heartbreaking thing <3 *hugs those two girls close to my heart*. I LOVED LOVED how devoted Marian was to Laura #ohmygoodness It was one of the most precious and devoted sibling relationships I've witnessed in literature. Just, gah! So special.

8. This is probably the first time I've "shipped" two characters in a story or hoped for them to get together romantically that way before. It didn't work out the way I'd hoped, and I was a bit miffed about it because it seemed so heartbreakingly perfect and beautiful to me *sighs*, but at the end I appreciated that the story was NOT a romantic-tale but a story of loyalty and friendship and at its heart an unravelling of a terrible mystery. Also the romantic resolution seemed very realistic in a bittersweet sort of way. I still think it would have been a good idea if those Two Certain Characters had come together, but oh well! 

9. The moral resolution or climax to the story. I can't explain it for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that I was very much impressed by the way the author portrayed a Scriptural truth through the choices and consequences of certain characters that I felt was quite poignant. 
10. The humour. I was actually surprised by that, but my greatest amusement sprang from Marian herself, just in her spunky, clever forthright way of saying and doing things. But I mean, Count Fosco and Mr. Farlie were equally amusing and at times strangely comical. I was surprised by how many times I was on the verge of smiling in "The Woman in White"

“My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.” 

That is not to say, that this is rather a heartbreaking and tragic tale. But beautiful nonetheless, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So, please, give it a go!
P.S. do not, do not watch the film adaption for The Woman in White, friends! It was a terrible, TERRIBLE adaption *growls angrily at film*.