I wish I had the discipline and dedication to write a novel. (And the skill and the plot ideas would also come in handy.) I think what I admire most about authors, is how they can take a simple concept; life, death, love, war, and then layer it with complexities, nuance and drama.
M.L Stedman’s first novel, The Light Between Oceans, is as good an example of that, as any debut I’ve ever read. And the critics agree, with tons of awards to its name.
Stunning and provocative, the underlying story is basic enough. A returned soldier with survivor’s guilt, a woman aching to know the love of a child, a family’s grief, and the operations of a remote lighthouse. However it is the events that occur, told in beautiful, poetic writing that complicate and give substance to the tale.
Set in 1926, Western Australia, the book is iconically Australian – steeped in our past and coastal culture of the time. I even learned some stuff about maritime history.
Tom is a lighthouse keeper on a remote island, Janus Rock. It’s a blustery and isolated existence for him and wife Isobel, the only inhabitants of the environment. They see other folk just once every six months, and they live a quiet and simple life; filled with love, and the everyday practicalities of running a lighthouse.
One morning, a boat washes up on shore carrying a crying infant, and a dead man. Years later, the consequences of their actions that day unravel, as the truth about the baby is discovered.
As you consume the pages, it is clear what the likely outcome may be. But it’s still surprising, provocative, and absorbing. It’s unsettling to decide what outcome you actually want. I found myself pensive, hours after putting down a chapter, considering the characters, and what I might do in their position.
The writing style is lovely and engaging. Each character has flaws, but is worthy of your empathy is three dimensional and interesting.
This book broke my heart in many ways. I admit I couldn’t enjoy every moment because reading it was emotional and exhausting. But it’s also immersive, and confronting. A story where the lines between right and wrong become so blurred that they almost look the same.
In short: A stunning debut that asks ‘what would you do?’