On his return from the First World War to Western Australia, Tom signs up to be a lighthouse keeper. The solitude is what he wants after the horrors of the front. He is lucky to be returning home, so many families have been destroyed, young men taken from their mothers far too early. On his way to the uninhabited island of Janus, he meets Isabel and falls in love. The life on the houses is not for everyone but Isabel wants nothing more to live with Tom and raise a family on the island. One night, a boat is washed ashore, containing a dead man and a baby, very much alive.
Well, this is one of those books that had tears streaming down my face by the end. The story is split into three parts, Tom’s life before Isabel, the time spent on the island as a family and finally the gripping section on the mainland which I just couldn’t put down. The first chapter draws you in and then, rightly so, the details are filled in afterwards.
I was first attracted to the book with by the lighthouse keeper’s story. Nowadays, lighthouses are automated but before it used to be a brave and lonely job. M.L. Stedman gives us just enough information to satisfy curiosity without bogging the reader down. It takes a certain type of trustworthy man to take on the responsibility and this remains an important part of Tom’s personality throughout everything that happens.
The central story, however, revolves around the baby, Lucy. Isabel has by this point suffered three miscarriages and is desperate for a child. So desperate that she decides to pass Lucy off as her own child. The setting of post WWI Australia makes this extra potent. There is a passage, very similar to one I quoted from Bereft, also set in the same time and place, about there is no word to describe a parent that has lost a child. Something that so many were suffering at the time. All the families on the mainland have lost someone, does that make Isabel’s deception more understandable or worse?
It also deals with the prevalence of xenophobia in the days after the war. Driven on by the helplessness felt by those left behind, foreigners were scapegoats and those who consorted with them just as bad.
The title itself, literally describes the positioning of Janus, between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, right on the edge of the world. Yet it also could be used to describe Lucy, the centre of the world for two very different women. Or perhaps it is Tom, torn between loyalty and guilt?
A heartbreaking tale, even if you’re not the maternal type. Another astonishing debut for this year.
The Light Between Oceans will be published in hardback and ebook editions by Doubleday on 26th April 2012. Thanks go to Transworld for providing me with a copy for review.