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.

4 sweet note(s):

  1. Ooh, I definitely want to read it now! I like books that you can read for the story, as well as the pure beauty of the words, and it sounds like this is one of them! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it, Joy!

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  2. I would really recommend it, Jessica, for sure - it's a really heartbreaking read, but as you said, the poetry and beauty of the words is just wonderful. Also being an Australian novel, it would definitely appeal especially to our Aussie-loving hearts <3 :D.

    You're welcome and thank you so much for commenting, dear Jessica!

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  3. I've been thinking about picking this book up for a while and now I definitely want to! I've been in the mood for a good historical fiction with beautiful writing. Thanks for the great review!

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  4. It's a beautiful book, I highly recommend it, Lenyer! Thank you so much for your sweet comment =)

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"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body..." ~Proverbs 16:24

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