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I wanted to fall in love with M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans (Vintage, 2012). Perhaps that was the problem. My expectations were too high. It came recommended by friends whose opinions I trust. It won the 2013 ABIA Book of the Year, the 2013 ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, The 2013 Australian Indie Book of the Year Award and the Australian Booksellers Association Booksellers Choice Award. So my expectations were not completely unfounded.
And the story is a promising one. When Tom Sherbourne becomes lighthouse keeper at Janus Island, Western Australia, and marries his beloved Isabel, he is finally able to put the horrors of World War One behind him and life is more perfect than he’d ever dared dream. Almost. Isabel can’t conceive, and she so desperately wants a child. One day (rather conveniently, if you ask me) a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a baby (the child is still alive, you ask? After travelling for who-knows-how-long without food or water over rough seas?… Shhh, don’t question that). Isabel keeps the baby, and for reasons that are not entirely convincing, Tom buries the dead man and the couple pretend Isabel’s last miscarriage didn’t happen and that the child is theirs. According to the bold lettering on the blurb: ‘They break the rules and follow their hearts. What happens next will break yours.’ (Perhaps this should have been the first clue that I wasn’t going to enjoy this book.) Actually, what happens next is entirely predictable. Spoiler alert: the child’s mother is still alive. Cue conflict! Cue moral dilemma! Cue agonising over said dilemma for two-hundred-plus pages.
To be honest, the plot actually didn’t bother me that much. Sure it’s Jodi Picoult with an Australian accent, but I don’t mind a bit of Jodes when the mood takes me (there is something comforting in her ‘oh no, MORAL DILEMMA! Emotional and deeply meaningful scenes where Single Mum who is also a hotshot doctor/lawyer/judge makes (and burns, always burns) chocolate chip pancakes to comfort Angsty Teenage Daughter. Resolve with clever twist that makes readers cry and dream about moving to New England’ formula). No, what bothered me was that there was nothing at stake. Conflict is useless if the reader isn’t invested in the resolution. Will Tom and Isobel’s secret be discovered? Will they keep the child? Will their secret tear them apart? I didn’t care.
Tom and Isabel are like extras in a James Cameron film that accidentally wandered into the spotlight. Tom is the taciturn veteran, tormented by memories too painful to discuss. Isabel is the (supposedly) exuberant, witty, wide-eyed creature he marries. After the briefest of courtships, she merrily waves goodbye to family and friends to sail for a lonely island with a man she hardly knows. Once married, she loses what little personality she once possessed and fixates on motherhood.
Part of what makes the characters so wooden is the dialogue. It’s painful. Tom, in all seriousness, calls Isabel his ‘little minx’. Not even kidding. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule against using that expression outside of Mills & Moon novels. If there’s not, there should be. Shudders. ‘Humdinger’, ‘struth’, ‘blimey’ and ‘Cooee’ also make too-frequent appearances. In fairness, maybe people really did talk like that in rural 1920s Australia. But it reads like a foreigner watched Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and thought they’d write a book about life ‘down under’.
But mostly, The Light Between Oceans is simply too long. From the time Tom and Isabel adopt the child to the time this becomes a problem, several hundred pages later, very little happens.They hang out on the island. The child grows a bit, as does Tom’s guilt. The tension builds, but too slowly. By the time the narrative finally arrived at the major climax, I’d pretty well lost interest.
On the positive side, The Light Between Oceans appears to be well-researched (though I’m no expert), and learning about the life of a lighthouse keeper in the early 20th century was genuinely interesting. The descriptions of the landscape and the ocean were vivid and there are some touching moments between the child and her adopted parents.
There’s also the possibility that, not being a mother, I can’t fully comprehend what’s at stake. But, honestly, that seems a cop out. It’s Stedman’s job to make me understand.
Overall, this should be a great book. The moral dilemma at its heart is, as the blurb indicates, a heartbreaking one: who should keep the child—the mother who bore her or the mother who raised her. But it’s not an original story. Off the top of my head, there’s a story in the Bible that deals with a similar crisis, as does Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. However, for me, even Brecht, who adamantly did not want his audience swept up in a tide of emotion, handled the dilemma in a more heartfelt way. The Light Between Oceans lacked character depth and steady rising tension—both of which might have been achieved with a good edit. So while it’s by no means a terrible book, it is disappointing.