A beautifully written and haunting story of choices and consequences by first-time Australian novelist Stedman, The Light Between Oceans tells the tale of Tom Sherbourne, a young soldier who survives the horrors of the trenches in WWI, and returns home to ponder why he lived when so many around him died. Unable to justify his survival to himself, he finds himself unable to resume life among the living. Instead, he takes a lonely job as lighthouse keeper on a remote island a half-day from the mainland, where shore leave comes once every two years and where he spends his time meticulously maintaining the lighthouse, the light, and the logs while allowing the simple routine to define his existence. A young woman from the mainland crosses his path, however, and love ensues. Tom begins to live again when Isabel marries him and joins him on the island to turn his self-exile into a loving home.
Three miscarriages/stillbirths later, Isabel is suffering the isolation and depression. And that’s when a rowboat washes up on the shore of their rocky island, bearing the corpse of a man and a very much alive infant girl whom Isabel takes into her heart. Tom wants to immediately report the incident and turn the child over to authorities, but Isabel forces him to delay and, ultimately, to bury the man unreported and take the baby as their own. As Lucy grows into a remarkably happy and imaginative child, Isabel is ecstatic and only Tom suffers the pangs of conscience while simultaneously adoring his wife and daughter. When they learn six years later of a half-mad mother still awaiting the return of her husband and baby, their world begins to shockingly unravel.
As many reviewers have commented, this is a sad tale. But it is a riveting one, forcing us to reflect on the morally ambiguous choices good people–like ourselves–make every day without thought of the consequences. Stedman’s writing is compelling, her settings gorgeously described, and her characters have histories and embody all the strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness of everyman. The Light Between Oceans is a love story, a tragedy, and a morality play wrapped into one beautiful debut novel.