This book did so much to my emotions while I read it that I barely know where to start with this review! The Light Between Oceans is such a moving, riveting, and tragic story about people making the wrong choice, for the right reasons, and making the right choice even though it will hurt someone. It will push you to question what you would do in the characters’ positions, and although it might seem simple from the outside, it will make you root for each character in turn so that you just don’t know anymore.
Tom Sherbourne has returned to Australia after serving as a soldier in the Great War, and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a solitary, harsh island. He marries the young, bold Isabel and brings her home with him, where they set about building their life together. They are happy to begin with, but miscarriages and stillbirths mar their joy. Then, one day, a boat washes up on the shore, and inside it is a man – dead – and a baby girl. Tom should report it, but Isabel has fallen in love with the little girl, and she has suffered so much. However, it is easier to live with this choice on the solitary island than it is on the homeland. When Tom and Isabel return to the mainland with the baby, named Lucy, Tom hears about a local woman who lost her husband and baby daughter at sea. Faced with the truth, he must decide what to do, knowing that whatever he decides to do, somebody will suffer.
My favourite thing about this novel was the writing. Steadman’s prose is absolutely beautiful, almost poetic to read. I would happily read page after page of Steadman’s writing. Every word helps you to get into the characters’ mindsets. She expertly describes life of Janus Rock, the characters’ relationships, their daily lives, and it is the atmosphere that she creates of a sort of grey, dreary and lonesome island that allows the story and emotional turmoil of the characters to stand out. I felt that this high quality of writing was really important for me to connect with the characters and enjoy the novel, as the actual story itself is quite harrowing. Not only is it sad, but it’s filled with characters making decisions that are morally questionable – to say the least. If the writing had been more simplistic, I think that many of these situations would have felt too clear-cut, and because I wouldn’t have related to the characters, I wouldn’t have felt challenged by their choices, and the story would have just felt like heartbreak and bad decision after heartbreak and bad decision.
I have read some criticisms of this book where people are argued that it is too sad or that they can’t stand the characters’ decisions, but I felt like Steadman’s writing made it possible for me to inhabit both Tom and Isabel’s minds, see what they were going through, and understand that sometimes our minds can be clouded by emotion. At times, Tom is confident that he must return Lucy to her true mother, but he can’t face robbing his wife, who is his whole world, of her only joy. Meanwhile, when we meet Isabel has been worn down by the death of her own babies. She loves Lucy, she needs Lucy, and she sees herself as Lucy’s mother. We also see Lucy’s real mother, and her own sorrow. The true triumph of this book for me is that, just as Tom didn’t know what he should do, I didn’t either. It can be easy to criticise people and say ‘Why would you do X when Y is clearly the best choice?’ but in this book, I really felt for all the characters. I was heartbroken for all of the characters. I wanted them all to get their happy ending.
This isn’t a novel with a dramatic, fast-paced plot, but rather the action lies in the emotion. This was fine with me, I love exploring people’s inner lives, their choices, morals, choices. As I’ve said, Steadman’s writing made this book really stand out to me, but others who maybe prefer more plot over emotion might find this book a little boring. What I did like about the plot is that this isn’t a novel that is littered with secondary plots, with random events that distract you from the main storyline, and pointless characters. The story says firmly fixed on the main story – Lucy. Personally, I loved that. The author chose a topic, stuck with it, and delivered. I never felt confused or weighed down by rambling narrative because the subject of the passage is simple – Lucy, Isabel, Tom. So, even if you maybe prefer a plot that develops quickly, that isn’t to say that this book isn’t for you.