From the opening lines of The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman, where a mother grieving the loss of a stillborn child hears the painful sound of an infant crying, an irresistible mystery is born.
M.L. Stedman, born and raised in Western Australia (now living in London), writes a powerful debut novel that at first appears simple: simple desires, understandable decisions: heartbreaking consequences.
Initially believing the crying belongs to her imagination, Isobel sees a boat wash ashore and finds that it contains a deceased man and a miracle; a live infant. So begins a story of love and desire; loss interspersed with stolen joys; of cataclysmic choices and moral questions in the atmosphere of post WWI in Australia, 1926.
Tom Sherborne, a First World War veteran and lighthouse keeper, falls in love and marries joyful, young Isobel. The two live on Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, which provides s setting of beauty and drama where extraordinary things can and do happen to the island’s only two residents, away from the eyes of the world.
But their life is shaded darkly with loss, death and sorrow as several pregnancies end too soon. So when the couple are delivered a gift from the sea: an apparently orphaned infant, Isobel grabs the ‘miracle’; her gift from heaven, and Tom makes a difficult decision. His duty is to report the occurrence but is put off time and again as he watches his bereft wife come to life by caring for the infant. With arms that have waited to cradle a living infant, the couple take the child as their own, and prepare to raise her.
From the intriguing outset and those first crucial decisions, a situation of impending trouble hangs over the couple as Tom’s guilt and misgivings persist. The story is punctuated by so many moral questions. Still; the stolen joy of raising a child warms the couple back to a state of happiness and cohesion until, by chance they discover the baby’s real story and their lives begin to unravel.
Clinging to the secluded safety of the island, the truth of their actions catches up to them as the infant’s biological mother discovers the possibility that her child is alive. The tension builds as two agonizing years pass while the story’s strings begin to twist and tangle. Tom and Isobel hang on to the child while the birth mother is driven to the edge of sanity with hope and grief.
A no-win situation arises; one person’s anguish is another’s joy; and what of the rights of the child? The tension holds us in its relentless grip until a decision is reached and the lives of all concerned are broken and scrutinized; their decisions and motivations examined by a non sympathetic society.
M.L. Stedman has designed a winning idea that she weaves and draws out to its final thread. A firm sense that Isobel’s grief over her losses is not cured, but was only delayed, pervaded the underlying feeling of this story. Isobel holds the power but her reactions and motivations are discomforting.
Stedman’s prose, invisible in its elegance, takes us from Tom to Isobel to the child’s birth mother, showing us characters with strength, depth, empathy and human frailties. We recognise their greatest desires and deepest fears – accessible emotions that make the reader wonder; what choice would I make given the circumstances?
The reader’s journey is one of rugged beauty; following the rhythm of of a lighthouse keeper’s life which makes for a mesmerizing journey. Utterly human motivations keep you entranced until the conclusion where there can be no happy ending, though readers should find it ultimately satisfying.
M.L. Stedman’s novel, published by Vintage 2012, is due to be published in twenty territories.
By Kamille Roach