“She’s a beauty all right,” said Tom, taking in the giant lens, far taller than himself, atop the rotating pedestal: a palace of prisms like a beehive made from glass. It was the very heart of Janus, all light and clarity and silence.”
It is a striking setting for M.L. Stedman’s debut novel, but the very heart of The Light Between Oceans is not Janus, however, but the love between Tom and Isabel, who soon marries him and joins him there.
The way in which Tom describes the view of the world from that point does have a geographical component, but he is also describing the perspective of a man in love.
“It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.”
And, yet, Tom has survived the war, so everything that he experiences — even great joy — is experienced in that context.
“From the gallery, the horizon stretches forty miles. It seems improbable to Tom that such endless space could exist in the same lifetime as the ground that was fought over a foot at a time only a handful of years ago, where men lost their lives for the sake of labeling a few muddy yards as ‘ours’ instead of ‘theirs,’ only to have them snatched back a day later.”
In many ways, the hardest parts of Tom’s life lie behind him, but the hardest parts of Isabel’s lie ahead.
“The hearth needing sweeping, and the lining of the curtains had begun to shred from constant exposure to extremes of weather. Simply to think of fixing any of it took more energy than she could muster. Only weeks ago she had been so full of expectation and vigor. Now the room felt like a coffin, and her life stopped at its edges.”
The great sorrow of Isabel’s life is her inability to carry a child to term, but when a child is washed ashore in a boat, with a man who has died en route, it appears to answer her most heartfelt wish.
“Isabel was awash with emotions: awe, at the grip of the miniature hands when they latched onto a single finger of her own; amusement, at the sweet little bottom which was yet to become fully distinct from the legs; reverence, for the breath which drew in the air around and transformed it into blood, into soul. And below all of these hummed the dark, empty ache.”
And, yet, as much as Isabel believes this baby is an answer, the baby’s appearance raises only questions for Tom.
“Time and again, Tom wondered at the hidden recesses of Isabel’s mind – the spaces where she managed to bury the turmoil his own mind couldn’t escape.”
Nonetheless, urged by his love for Isabel, Tom makes decisions that have lifelong ramifications for all involved.
M.L. Stedman uses language with simplicity and grace. Despite the emotive weight of her subject matter, her expression is clear and much of its power lies in subtly.
(Consider the two quotes above which describe Tom and Isabel, which are actually separated by nearly 50 pages, but one shows Tom without edges and the other shows Isabel with too many edges. It’s a small detail, but these subtle touches accumulate.)
Most of this is outlined on the book’s back cover; readers will not suspect that it takes 100 pages to set this stage, with more than 200 pages devoted to the tumultuous events that follow for the rest of these characters’ lives.
The novel’s most interesting aspect, however, is the latter part, in which the moral weight of decisions made (or avoided, or ignored) truly settles.
A happy ending for one character is a tragic ending for another: the plot is truly compelling, and all-the-more-so because the reader is wholly engaged in the characters’ lives.