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Longlisted for Best Literary Fiction Blog - 2011 Shortlisted Best Written Book Blog - 2010

The Light Between Oceans – Book Review

He struggles to make sense of it – all this love so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens. – from The Light Between Oceans, page 225 –

A lighthouse warns of danger – tells people to keep their distance. She had mistaken it for a place of safety. – from the Light Between Oceans, page 227 –

Tom Sherbourne carries the scars of war after spending four years on the Western Front during WWI. He returns to Australia and accepts the job as light keeper on Janus Rock – a distant and isolated outpost a half day’s journey from the mainland and the small town of Partageuse. It is in Partageuse he meets Isabel, a young woman whose indefatigable spirit captures his heart. The two marry and begin their life on Janus Rock where the waves and wind, and the gorgeous landscape fill their days. Isabel quickly becomes pregnant, only to lose the child to miscarriage. Two more pregnancies end in disaster…and it is in the sad days following her last pregnancy when Isabel hears a baby’s cry. A boat has washed up on Janus Rock carrying a dead man and a very much alive baby girl. For Isabel, it is the miracle she has been waiting for; but for Tom the arrival of the boat will challenge his sense of right and wrong and test his marriage to Isabel. Tom’s decision to allow Isabel to keep the infant girl (who they name Lucy) and allow the death of the baby’s father to go unreported will have consequences which will profoundly impact not only he and Isabel, but a third person – Lucy’s biological mother who has never given up hope that her baby will be found.

M. L. Stedman’s debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, is a compelling story about love, loss, loneliness, and the consequences of our moral choices. Stedman’s prose is haunting and filled with symbolism grounded in the natural world. Janus Rock isolates Tom and Isabel, which makes their choice to keep Lucy easier – it is just them, on a rock, in between the oceans. It is only when the return to the mainland for an infrequent vacation when they are reminded they are not alone in the world.

Tom’s journey is one of recovery from a less than ideal childhood and the horrors of war. He carries guilt and a desire to put things right again. His conflict lies between protecting Isabel and Lucy, and the idea of justice and resolution for Lucy’s biological mother. Whatever he decides will cause pain to someone. Tom clings to what is real and solid – the lighthouse and its duties, the predictable rise and fall of the ocean – to travel his path…so when faced with the intangible and unpredictable, he finds himself floundering.

He must turn to something solid, because if he didn’t, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast. That was the only thing that had got him through four years of blood and madness: know exactly where your gun is when you doze for ten minutes in your dugout; always check your gas mask; see that your men have understood their orders to the letter. You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is just speculation. – from The Light Between Oceans, page 33 –

The Light Between Oceans is beautifully wrought, but not without its flaws. Some plot points felt a bit implausible or contrived, and the novel begins slowly. I read this book for an online book club, and some participants stopped reading because they found the story to slow to engage them. Although I agree that Stedman takes her time to develop the characters and their conflicts, I loved the alluring imagery and lyrical cadence of Stedman’s prose. Sticking with the book proved to have its rewards. Stedman ultimately creates memorable characters and a story which reminds readers that life is complicated and the decisions we make can have devastating consequences not only for ourselves, but for others.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction and like books with complex characters who are driven by internal conflict, will find themselves drawn to The Light Between Oceans. M.L. Stedman’s first novel is a meditation on love and loss, and is a moving introduction to a new voice in literature.


FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.



  1. October 7, 2012    

    The book does sound good but I’m not always tolerant of a slow start like that.

  2. October 7, 2012    

    I thought that the pacing was perfect for the book and clearly fit the mood of the isolation on the island with the lighthouse. I’m not normally a fan of a slow starter, but this one was a very good read.

  3. October 8, 2012    

    Your reviews are always so nuanced – I love reading them! It does sound like the prose has some great moments!

  4. October 15, 2012    

    I’ve heard good things about this one and I was intrigued from the minute I read the publisher’s synopsis. I’m glad to see your rating – and the info that it’s slow to develop.

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