The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans came to my notice shortly after its publication in 2012, but the emotional complexities resonated a bit too strongly at the time. I returned to the book recently and found it a compelling and thought-provoking story of innocent love, fall from grace, and redemption.

Tom, a lighthouse keeper, embodies aspects of both fallen humanity and a redemptive Christ-figure. The early days of his marriage are painted in idyllic terms–ardent, young love on a picturesque, if isolated, lighthouse island off the coast of Australia.

*Spoiler alert: The remainder of this review reveals plot developments and outcomes.

Over the next few years, however, his wife, Isabel, suffers repeated miscarriages. When a mysterious boat arrives on the island bearing a dead man and an infant, compassion moves Tom to comply reluctantly with Isabel’s supplication to claim the child as their biological offspring. Later, however, empathy for the child’s bereaved birth mother requires Tom to confess the truth to the authorities. In doing so he not only sacrifices his relationships with his wife and adopted daughter but puts his own life at risk. Isabel, seeing nothing but her own grief, nearly allows the authorities to believe Tom’s claim that the decision to keep the child was all his own. But at the last moment, in a scene replete with symbols of baptism and rebirth, Isabel turns back from her course of  abandonment.

Upon initially finishing the book, I wished the author had provided a greater degree of restoration for her characters. While Tom and Isabel are reconciled to one another, the remainder of their lives are characterized by isolation from community. But it is worth considering whether this, too, represents a study in consequences. Perhaps Isabel never experienced complete absolution because she failed to accept it. The narrator tells us that Tom “had tried to show Isabel his love, in every act of every day for thirty years.” But it is only after Isabel’s death that Tom receives the opportunity for reunion with his would-be adopted daughter and her child.

Stedman’s imagery rewards studied consideration of themes and metaphor. Tom and Isabel’s circumstances are unique and invoke extreme consequences. But the broader setting portrays unexceptional individuals who are able, with little difficulty, to justify harming or excluding others to benefit their own family or community, with sometimes deadly consequences. Set against the devastating backdrop of WWI, The Light Between Oceans investigates the ultimate outcome of unmitigated self-interest pursued by otherwise respectable individuals.

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