“A stunning debut novel about a lighthouse keeper and his wife. They break the rules and follow their hearts. What happens next will break yours.”
Every now and then a book comes along that I really look forward to reading – but that turns out not to be my cup of tea. This is how I feel about The Light Between Oceans. On paper I should (and wanted) to love this book, which is a well-crafted first novel with an unusual setting and moral dilemma at its heart. Ultimately, though, I just did not engage with the book or characters; they left me unmoved.
Set in Australia between 1920 and 1950, The Light Between Oceans is the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, newlyweds beginning their married life on Janus Rock, a remote island 100 miles off the coast of Australia where Tom works as an offshore lighthouse keeper. Still suffering some psychological trauma from WW1, Tom meets and marries Isabel while on shore leave. Returning together to the lighthouse, Isabel must learn to adapt to a new way of life. They only have each other for company (the supply ships visits at 3 monthly intervals – their only opportunity for news from shore) and they are granted shore leave – and the chance of wider company – only once every 3 years.
At first Isabel relishes the freedom of Janus Rock, with dolphins and seabirds their only neighbours. But Tom warns her that the freedom of the island is a gift and a curse. To avoid going mad (like the previous lighthouse keeper) they must keep a regular routine, eat, sleep and follow society’s rules on Janus Rock as much as if they were living on the mainland. Tom and Isabel settle into a rhythm on the island, driven by the needs of the lighthouse itself, lighting the lamp at sunset, closing down the lamp at sunrise. The lamp needs the love and care usually bestowed on an infant and Tom’s skill as a lighthouse keeper is an essential part of keeping him tethered – it’s only when he breaks the rules that his life changes. In time Isabel conceives, only to suffer a miscarriage. Then another miscarriage, then another – until 3 small crosses line the top of the cliff. Isabel is no longer a young girl and the hope of a child has grown taunt, like over-tensed wire, between the couple.
Into this environment, one blustery day, as Isabel buries her last premature baby, drifts a rowing boat containing a dead man – and a healthy baby.
The miracle of a baby being alive in a boat that has drifted so far from shore, and arriving at a time when Isabel had finally given up hope for a child of her own, is prophetic and a catalyst for the rest of the story. Tom and Isabel now face a moral dilemma – do they record the shipwreck in the lighthouse logbook, as required by law, and have the baby collected and taken away – in all likelihood to an orphanage? Or do they take the child as theirs and give her a loving home on Janus Rock?
To reveal more of the story will spoil the book, but from the point of the baby’s arrival the book takes a new turn, one that examines the ethical choices, and the thin line between what is right and wrong at any given moment.
The book is beautifully written, and Janus Rock is wonderfully realised – I was on the island with the sea birds and gusting breeze in the cool sun of a spring morning, and I was there also as Tom set off to check the light in the evening, watching as the light sliced through the darkness, across the rocks and into the void of the ocean beyond.
The Light Between Oceans cleverly works on several levels sub-textually; Janus Rock is at the point of Australia where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean, two separate oceans linking separate continents – a good analogy for differences between the isolated life Isabel and Tom live on their island, and the wider society back on the mainland.
The setting of Janus Rock is also cleverly done; it sets a world and society apart, where the distance from shore and wider social contact creates it’s own pressures and justifications – that can’t always be sustained when back on the mainland. For me, the strongest, most vivid scenes were on Janus Rock. That was where I believed in – and could empathise with Tom, Isabel and baby Lucy the most.
The Light Between Oceans promised much, but (for me) did not deliver completely. It’s an undeniably beautifully written debut from an author I feel will only improve over time. The setting and placing of the novel are impeccable, but for me the moral dilmena it portrayed was tempered by my antipathy to the characters within.
Many thanks to Jane for the review, and Transworld for the review copy.