Wednesday, December 12, 2012

*The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

Scribner, 2012
343 pp
hardcover ed.

Considering I chose for this month books you might want to take to the beach if you happen to be in Australia right now, enjoying a nice summer, I picked the perfect title in The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman.  For me, this book is the epitome of beach read for several reasons which I'll get to momentarily.  

Tom Sherbourne left Australia in 1915, setting out to serve his country in World War I.  The last he saw of Australia as he left was the five-second flash of light beaming out from the lighthouse at "his homeland's furthest reach," Janus Island.  That light became a memory that stayed with him during the war "through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss."  Back in Australia at war's end, Tom first takes a six-month posting at Byron Bay, where he learned the "basics of life on the Lights." 

Byron Bay Lighthouse, Cape Byron, NSW, Australia

 (from Wikipedia)

In June, 1920, he gets wind of a vacancy at the lighthouse on Janus Island, a remote location that suits him perfectly, as does the island's isolation.  The supply boat comes on a very limited schedule; the chance to return to the mainland is even more limited.  At first Tom is there to relieve the current lighthouse keeper, but the situation eventually becomes permanent, and he eventually brings a young woman Isabel (Izzy) there as his wife.  Tom is a very principled, moral, by-the-book man, until one day when a small boat washes up on the beach that Izzy begs him not to report.  Because of multiple tragedies that Izzy has endured on Janus Island,  Tom acquiesces to her request, although his failure to report the boat incident constantly eats away at him inside.  But it will also have unforeseen consequences for both himself and Izzy, not to mention other innocent people when they return to the mainland.  It will also become a decision that will haunt both of them the rest of their life.  I won't say any more, not wanting to spoil it for anyone else who may want to read this book.

Stedman's evocation of a time and place is very realistic, and she is also skillful at developing  the moral/emotional dilemma so central to this novel and then bushwhacking the reader with a twist that adds even more intensity to Tom and Izzy's predicament.  It is pretty much impossible for anyone reading this book to not come to some sort of a judgment about what is right and what is wrong, and this novel will probably also make for some pretty intense book group discussions (my own group will be reading it later this year and I can already hear the thoughts of some of the people in my head right now).    Her depiction of people in a town who can't forgive or forget, in some large part the cause of all of the problems that follow, is also very well composed. The first part of the novel up until the return to the mainland really engaged my attention -- I was caught up in the descriptions of the lighthouse, Janus Island and the isolation of being cut off from other people as well as Tom's angst over his conflicting ideas of duty, all of which kept me reading and interested.   At the same time, The Light Between Oceans has the feel of what I'd consider a beach read, verging on the edge of chick lit.  Once the dilemma and the added jolt present themselves, the rest of the book became rather predictable and the outcome just sort of  fell flat.  When I figured out what was going on, I really didn't feel like I needed to read any longer because I knew just what was going to happen. I did finish it, though, and well, I was right. I figured it all out.  I also want to figure out my own emotional reaction to the books I read; this one is a guided tour with plenty of gut-twisting choices being made along the way,  pretty much guaranteeing a certain response.

To be extremely fair, readers everywhere are LOVING this book; as for me,  I'm not overly fond of pre-constructed emotional sentimentality and chick-lit material in the novels I read. So you might want to read the 5-star reviews from Amazon to see the glowing praise being heaped on this book to get more of a feel for why people loved it.  Once again, I'm swimming upstream from public opinion, but well, that's how it goes sometimes.

fiction from Australia

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