Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman (Review, Excerpt, Interview)

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.

M. L. Stedman’s mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel’s decision to keep this “gift from God.” And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.

The Light Between Oceans is exquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel.

Hardcover: 352 pages (Paperback & Kindle available)
Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (July 31, 2012) 
Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars

M. L. Stedman

M.L. Stedman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in LondonThe Light Between Oceans is her first novel.

M.L. Stedman"Haunting." "Atmospheric." "Harrowing." These are the kinds of adjectives readers are applying to "The Light Between Oceans," the debut novel by London attorney M. L. Stedman. Set on an island off the coast of Western Australia (home territory for Stedman), the book tells the story of a World War I veteran and his wife, a childless couple with a loving marriage but no child to share the remote outpost that they call home. This couple – with a single breathtaking decision – set into motion an unimaginable course of events. I recently spoke with Stedman about her book. 

Q: The story of "The Light Between Oceans" is so atmospheric, intense, and – in several senses – remote. How did this story come to you?
A: I write very organically – a picture or phrase or voice turns up in my mind, and I just follow it. For this story, I closed my eyes and could see a lighthouse and a woman. I could tell it was a long time ago, on an island off Western Australia. A man appeared, and I sensed he was the lightkeeper, and it was his story. Then a boat washed up, carrying the body of a dead man. I kept looking and saw there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see who all these people were and what happened next.
Q: Several of your characters face difficult ethical dilemmas. Some make poor decisions, but in the end, as we come to understand them, most turn out to be quite sympathetic people. Would you say that this reflects your world view?
There’s a great deal to be said for that old expression ‘walk a mile in the other person’s shoes’, don’t you think? I believe that people are born with a strong instinct for good. Of course, views of what ‘good’ looks like differ wildly. But I think it’s usually possible to find compassion for even the most misguided of individuals: that’s different from condoning harmful behavior. It’s just recognizing that the business of being human is complex, and it’s easy to get things wrong. Compassion and mercy allows society to heal itself when we do. 
Q: Much of the story involves either loss – or fear of loss – of love. Would you say that you see this fear as the great driver of much of human experience?
You probably only fear losing love if you already have it, so I’d say that the driver starts a step earlier – satisfying a basic human need for love in its very broadest sense: that includes giving as well as receiving it. In its infinite variety of forms, it plays a role in bestowing life with meaning.
Q: The plotting in this novel is tight and neatly crafted (almost like a ship, I kept thinking as I was reading). Do you think that your work as a lawyer has impacted your writing style in terms of attention to details, an ability to cross all the "t" and dot all the "i"s?
I love the idea of the plot being as sound as a ship! I think the greatest impact of my legal background is that it allows me to write freely and spontaneously, without meticulously plotting in advance. Lawyers are probably hard-wired for structure, so it’s a reflex rather than something to spend a lot of conscious thought on. And yes, the legal training helps on the detail, too, making sure that things are consistent. 
Q: When it comes to the setting, the book seems to be written with much love. Is that coastal setting close to your heart?
Definitely! I’m always happiest beside an ocean. I grew up with the West Australian landscape, and I so enjoyed putting it on the page – describing the place I’ve loved all my life.
Q: Who are your own favorite writers? Do you think any of them have had an impact on this novel?
A few favorites who spring to mind (in no particular order) are Graham GreeneGeorge Eliot,Ernest HemingwayF. Scott FitzgeraldCormac McCarthy, Jane Gardam, Andre GideIan McEwan,Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield... I suppose what they have in common is an unflinching eye, a profound understanding of the human heart, and a mastery of language. Those are the qualities I find most rewarding in books, so they’re the ones I’d like to bring, in however pale a reflection, to what I write.
(Reprinted from The Christian Science Monitor - September 18, 2012)

My Review:
        This was the choice for book club this month, and otherwise it may not have been a book I would have picked up to read. I like the cover and thought it suited the story quite well.

English: Lighthouse keeper on the steps of San...
English: Lighthouse keeper on the steps of Sandy Cape Lighthouse, Fraser Island, Queensland, ca. 1907 Chimney of the superintendent's house just visible behind the lighthouse, to the right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
        I found the beginning of the book interesting, and then ran into a bit of dry patch that I have to admit I skimmed through before becoming thoroughly engrossed in the book to the point I did not want to put it down. It is a love story between Isabel (happy go lucky) and Tom (serious young man just returning from war), who meet, fall in love, and live the first years of their marriage on a remote island south of Australia. Tom is employed as the lighthouse keeper on an island called Janus. Other than the supply boat, that arrives from the mainland with supplies every three or four months, they are virtually isolated from the world.

        After suffering three miscarriages, a boat with a dead man and a baby mysteriously appear in the lagoon, and Isabel, while visiting the grave of her baby, hears a baby’s cry on the wind. What follows is a story about right and wrong, and how the lines are not always so clear.

        The story is very well written and I found the book to be an enjoyable read. It was an informative story that teaches the reader about life as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island. The book also presents the reader with a moral dilemma, which may have you swaying first one way and then the other as you contemplate the decision of the characters, that you have to come to love, will make. You will read of decisions made out of love and in then in the name of revenge, and then forgiveness. As the quotes from the book suggest, The Light Between Oceans is a thought-provoking book and I encourage you to read it. 

Book Quotes:

“Your family’s never in your past. You carry it around with you everywhere.”

“I’m not trying to hide anything,” Tome said. “It’s just that raking over the past is a waste of time.” “And I’m not trying to pry. Only-you’ve had a whole life, a whole story, and I’ve come in late. I’m only trying to make sense of things. Make sense of you.” She hesitated, then asked delicately, “If I can’t talk about the past, am I allowd to talk about the future?” “We can’’’t rightly ever talk about the future, if you think about it. we can only talk about what we imagine, or wish for. It’s not the same thing.” “OK, what do you wish for, then?” Tom paused. “Life. That’ll do me, I reckon.”

“So marry me!” He blinked. “Izz-I hardly know you! And, besides, I’ve never even-well, I’ve never even kissed you, for crying out loud!” “At long last!” She spoke as if the solution were blindingly obvious, and she stood on tiptoes to pull his head down toward her.

“You know Janus is where the word January comes from? It’s named after the same God as this island. He’s got two faces, back to back. Pretty ugly fellow.” “What’s he God of?” “Doorways. Always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things. January looks forward to the new year and back to the old year. He sees past and future. And the island looks in the direction of two different oceans, down to the South Pole and up to the Equator.”

“Zebedee,” she repeated, putting her nose back down in the book so that he could not catch her eye. “You’re not serious? What kind of name-“A wounded expression crossed her face. “That’s my great-uncle’s name. Zebedee Zanzibar Graysmark.” Tom gave her a look, as she plowed on, “I promised Grandma on her deathbed that if I ever had a son I’d call him after her brother. I can’t go back on a promise.” “I was thinking of something a bit more normal.” “Are you calling my great-uncle abnormal? Isabell couldn’t contain herself any longer, and burst out laughing. “Got you! Got you good and proper!”

“She washed and patched Tom’s clothes, and cooked the things he liked. Lucy grew. The light turned. Time passed.”

“Put right the things you can put right today, and let the ones from back then go. Leave the rest to the angels, or the devil or whoever’s in charge of it.”

“Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.” He laughed, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow. “I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too: very Teutonic! No” – his voice became sober – “we always have a choice. All of us.”

“We always have a choice.” The words ran through her mind.

“You’re my wife, Isabel.” …I still want to spend my life with you. Izz, I’ve learned the hard way that to have any kind of a future you’ve got to give up hope of ever changing your past.”

An Excerpt:
Thousands of miles away on the west coast, Janus Rock was the furthest place on the continent from Tom’s childhood home in Sydney. But Janus Light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five-second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. When, in June 1920, he got news of an urgent vacancy going on Janus, it was as though the light there were calling to him.
Teetering on the edge of the continental shelf, Janus was not a popular posting. Though its Grade One hardship rating meant a slightly higher salary, the old hands said it wasn’t worth the money, which was meager all the same. The keeper Tom replaced on Janus was Trimble Docherty, who had caused a stir by reporting that his wife was signaling to passing ships by stringing up messages in the colored flags of the International Code. This was unsatisfactory to the authorities for two reasons: first, because the Deputy Director of Lighthouses had some years previously forbidden signaling by flags on Janus, as vessels put themselves at risk by sailing close enough to decipher them; and secondly, because the wife in question was recently deceased.
Considerable correspondence on the subject was generated in triplicate between Fremantle and Melbourne, with the Deputy Director in Fremantle putting the case for Docherty and his years of excellent service, to a Head Office concerned strictly with efficiency and cost and obeying the rules. A compromise was reached by which a temporary keeper would be engaged while Docherty was given six months’ medical leave.
“We wouldn’t normally send a single man to Janus—it’s pretty remote and a wife and family can be a great practical help, not just a comfort,” the District Officer had said to Tom. “But seeing it’s only temporary… You’ll leave for Partageuse in two days,” he said, and signed him up for six months.
There wasn’t much to organize. No one to farewell. Two days later, Tom walked up the gangplank of the boat, armed with a kit bag and not much else. The SS Prometheus worked its way along the southern shores of Australia, stopping at various ports on its run between Sydney and Perth. The few cabins reserved for first-class passengers were on the upper deck, toward the bow. In third class, Tom shared a cabin with an elderly sailor. “Been making this trip for fifty years—they wouldn’t have the cheek to ask me to pay. Bad luck, you know,” the man had said cheerfully, then returned his attention to the large bottle of over-proof rum that kept him occupied. To escape the alcohol fumes, Tom took to walking the deck during the day. Of an evening there’d usually be a card game belowdecks.
You could still tell at a glance who’d been over there and who’d sat the war out at home. You could smell it on a man. Each tended to keep to his own kind. Being in the bowels of the vessel brought back memories of the troopships that took them first to the Middle East, and later to France. Within moments of arriving on board, they’d deduced, almost by an animal sense, who was an officer, who was lower ranks; where they’d been.
Just like on the troopships, the focus was on finding a bit of sport to liven up the journey. The game settled on was familiar enough: first one to score a souvenir off a first-class passenger was the winner. Not just any souvenir, though. The designated article was a pair of ladies’ drawers. “Prize money’s doubled if she’s wearing them at the time.”
The ringleader, a man by the name of McGowan, with a mustache, and fingers yellowed from his Woodbines, said he’d been chatting to one of the stewards about the passenger list: the choice was limited. There were ten cabins in all. A lawyer and his wife—best give them a wide berth; some elderly couples, a pair of old spinsters (promising), but best of all, some toff’s daughter traveling on her own.
“I reckon we can climb up the side and in through her window,” he announced. “Who’s with me?”
The danger of the enterprise didn’t surprise Tom. He’d heard dozens of such tales since he got back. Men who’d taken to risking their lives on a whim—treating the boom gates at level crossings as a gallop jump; swimming into rips to see if they could get out. So many men who had dodged death over there now seemed addicted to its lure. Still, this lot were free agents now. Probably just full of talk.
The following night, when the nightmares were worse than usual, Tom decided to escape them by walking the decks. It was two a.m. He was free to wander wherever he wanted at that hour, so he paced methodically, watching the moonlight leave its wake on the water. He climbed to the upper deck, gripping the stair rail to counter the gentle rolling, and stood a moment at the top, taking in the freshness of the breeze and the steadiness of the stars that showered the night.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a glimmer come on in one of the cabins. Even first-class passengers had trouble sleeping sometimes, he mused. Then, some sixth sense awoke in him—that familiar, indefinable instinct for trouble. He moved silently toward the cabin, and looked in through the window.
In the dim light, he saw a woman flat against the wall, pinned there even though the man before her wasn’t touching her. He was an inch away from her face, with a leer Tom had seen too often. He recognized the man from belowdecks, and remembered the prize. Bloody idiots. He tried the door, and it opened.
“Leave her alone,” he said as he stepped into the cabin. He spoke calmly, but left no room for debate.
The man spun around to see who it was, and grinned when he recognized Tom. “Christ! Thought you were a steward! You can give me a hand, I was just—”
“I said leave her alone! Clear out. Now.”
“But I haven’t finished. I was just going to make her day.” He reeked of drink and stale tobacco.
Tom put a hand on his shoulder, with a grip so hard that the man cried out. He was a good six inches shorter than Tom, but tried to take a swing at him all the same. Tom seized his wrist and twisted it. “Name and rank!”
“McKenzie. Private. 3277.” The unrequested serial number followed like a reflex.
“Private, you’ll apologize to this young lady and you’ll get back to your bunk and you won’t show your face on deck until we berth, you understand me?”
“Yes, sir!” He turned to the woman. “Beg your pardon, Miss. Didn’t mean any harm.”
Still terrified, the woman gave the slightest nod.
“Now, out!” Tom said, and the man, deflated by sudden sobriety, shuffled from the cabin.
“You all right?” Tom asked the woman.
“I—I think so.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“He didn’t…”—she was saying it to herself as much as to him—“he didn’t actually touch me.”
He took in the woman’s face—her gray eyes seemed calmer now. Her dark hair was loose, in waves down to her arms, and her fists still gathered her nightgown to her neck. Tom reached for her dressing gown from a hook on the wall and draped it over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Must have got an awful fright. I’m afraid some of us aren’t used to civilized company these days.”
She didn’t speak.
“You won’t get any more trouble from him.” He righted a chair that had been overturned in the encounter. “Up to you whether you report him, Miss. I’d say he’s not the full quid now.”
Her eyes asked a question.
“Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.” He turned to go, but put his head back through the doorway. “You’ve got every right to have him up on charges if you want. But I reckon he’s probably got enough troubles. Like I said—up to you,” and he disappeared through the door.
(Reprinted from

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  1. I picked up a copy of this book a while ago and have been trying to find time to read it...all the more reason to now. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for stopping by MJ. Definitely read the book. There will be crying - the big, bad, blubbery kind!


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