Friday, 25 January 2013

Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
M.L. Stedman

'They [the stars] just kept shining, no matter what was going on. I think of the light here like that, like a splinter of a star that's fallen to earth: it just shines, no matter what is happening.'

Well blow me down. What a book. It has taken me a few days to consider this book before I could actually write down what I thought of it. I loved this book but since finishing it I have felt quite uneasy about the storyline and the general morality of it. Maybe that is the point and if it is, Stedman is very clever, she certainly got me. It is not that I have felt uneasy about how Stedman has written it, or the moral path that she follows, but more by my own moral compass and the ease with which I made my decision of how I wanted the book to end. If you've read it, I think you'd understand, but if you've not then all I can say is go read it, like, right now.

Ok, so the novel follows the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne and their life on the lighthouse island Janus Rock. Tom is a veteran of the First World War who took a job as a lighthouse keeper on his return from the Western Front. Janus is probably the most isolated place they could be, short of actually being in the middle of the ocean on a boat. After three miscarriages, a boat washes up on the island containing a dead man and baby who is very much alive. Their decision to keep the baby forms the basis of the novel and brings up some very interesting questions.

I particularly like how the novel starts with a prologue type chapter from the middle of the story. There is no slow lead up here, Stedman gets right on in there, gives us a taste of the action and then returns to the beginning. I like this because it's like we already know what the characters are going to do before we even know who they are. Then as we find out about them, the knowledge of those actions is constantly there, changing our relationship with the characters. Clever that, I think. It is also clever how, in such a morally complex story, I found myself rooting for every single character. I wanted everyone to have Lucy.

Tom is definitely the central character here. We see everything through his eyes even though it is written in third person. He is still a complete mystery though, we know he was in the war and we know it damaged/changed him but we don't know any specifics, much of it is just based on assumptions and inferences. Too many novels which have veterans in try too hard to give them a war story which can often seem fake and disjointed. By simply implying that he had a rough time and almost counting on a general knowledge of the war in her readers, Stedman creates much more of a rounded character. I liked him at least.

The writing is brilliant, the language stunning and the story completely compelling but I do have an issue with the ending. Without putting any spoilers out there, I think it is an unnecessary ending, one which ties everything up in a neat bow, cuts off all those questions and rounds off all those tricky story lines in a way that, I think, did not need to happen. It is good and I did shed a tear or two, but Stedman was saying things that did not need to be said. That might just be me, though. I've got my English grad hat on here and could potentially be being a bit harsh. I would love to hear what any of you who've read it thought of the ending?

Critical moment aside, The Light Between Oceans is heartbreaking and lovely and it finishes with some of the most subtley hopeful lines I have ever read:

'There are still more days to travel in this life. And he knows that the man who makes the journey has been shaped by every day and every person along the way. Scars are just another kind of memory. Isabel is part of him, wherever she is, just like the war and the light and the ocean. Soon enough the days will close over their lives, the grass will grow over their graves, until their story is just another unvisited headstone.
       He watches the ocean surrender to night, knowing that the light will reappear*.'

I think this is a book I will re-read in a few years and have a completely different reaction to. I look forward to seeing what that reaction will be.

* In case you were wondering (probably not), this is part of the reason why I love lighthouses


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