The silence that anaesthetises shame

The Light Between Oceans
by M L Stedman

This is a beautifully written account of people facing terrible circumstances and decisions. It didn’t move me the way I thought it would (or should) but it got me thinking about love, in all its forms. I can see why this debut novel has already attracted a lot of interest.

The story is set in Western Australia in the 1920s, primarily on a tiny island far off the coast occupied only by the lighthouse keeper and his family. After serving in World War I, Tom is looking for a quiet, useful life when he signs up to “the lights”. He expects to live out his days alone and has accepted that when, on shore leave in the small town of Partageuse, he meets Isabel. She is young, sparkling, headstrong and quick to fall in love.

Izzy has to persuade Tom that she can deal with the life on the island. Shore leave is every three years, with the only other contact with people being a quarterly supply boat. In emergencies a signal can be sent out but otherwise they are quite alone with the lighthouse, cottage, vegetable patch, chickens and goats, at the forefront of every weather front and surrounded by the tempestuous meeting point of two oceans. It is a tough life but Izzy seems up to the task.

The novel begins with the pivotal event before going back to fill in all these details. One day a boat washes up on the island containing a dead body and a crying baby. Izzy has just lost her third child in stillbirth and is out of her mind with grief. The baby appears like a gift from God. But they can’t possibly keep it and not report it, can they?

The story explores grief, truth, lies and choices, sometimes slightly too obviously but at other times very effectively: “History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on – protected by the silence that anaesthetises shame.”

It’s a hugely emotional story quietly told. I actually thought it was written by a man until I read Stedman’s bio because it is largely viewed from Tom’s perspective. He is stoic, dependable and brave – essentially a good man – where Izzy is impetuous, subject to mood swings and bears grudges. Perhaps this perspective prevented the story from becoming melodramatic or schmaltzy, which is some achievement considering the subject matter, but it also distanced me enough from events that I was not moved by things that I think should have moved me. I should have cried reading this story, or at least come close, but I did not. In fact at times I found it too slow, though it picked up a lot in the third act.

The characters are very well created and I was eager to know what would happen to them. I liked how Tom turned to his duty, becoming more efficient, more clean and tidy, when life got hard. But the best part was the setting. The descriptions of the sea and the weather are stunning: “There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger”. Beautiful.

This book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 26 April 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Books.