Summer Reading Challenge: September 5

"The Light Between Oceans" builds and builds emotion.

G’day from Down Under! I am writing this final book review from Australia, where I have made a quick trip to visit family.

I expected to have finished this week’s novel before I even arrived in Australia, since that meant enduring a 15-hour plane flight. But I couldn’t bring myself to read very much on the plane – the lights were off in the cabin and I didn’t want to disturb my neighbours. Plus, the time passes much faster when I switch my brain off and watch a movie.

So I ended up reading in stolen moments during this stay. The final chapters I have just finished were read on the patio at my parents’ house, sitting in the winter sun and listening to the kookaburras cackle.

It was the perfect setting to read this week’s novel, M.L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans”. This 2012 novel is set in Western Australia, and the author, who is an ex-pat like me, went to great efforts to bring the Australian setting to the forefront. The ocean, the bush and the wildlife are as much a character as anyone.

Set in 1926, “The Light Between Oceans” gives us a glimpse of an isolated island where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, hundreds of miles from the mainland. All that stands on Janus Island is a tall, powerful lighthouse, and the home and outbuildings where the light keeper lives.

On Janus Island, we meet light keeper Tom Sherbourne and his new wife Isabel. In this far-flung spot, they create a home for themselves; they don’t mind the isolation because they have each other. Stedman sets the ground work for a great love story.

But as the years go by, Tom and Isabel face tragedy upon tragedy as Isabel suffers two miscarriages. Then her third pregnancy ends in a still birth at seven months.

It’s more than Isabel can bear. She is devastated; Tom is desperate to help but he’s not able to.

Only weeks later, they hear a baby’s cries above the crashing waves. They rush to the little beach to see a small boat washed up. Inside is a man’s body and a mewling newborn.

In her grief, Isabel instantly bonds with the baby girl. They decide to keep her as their own. Although he knows what they are doing is wrong, Tom has finally found a way to assuage Isabel’s suffering.

In this isolated world, it is years before they realize the repercussions of their actions.

“The Light Between Oceans” spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been lauded by critics and readers alike. It has won three Australian Book Industry Awards for Best Newcomer, Best Literary Novel, and Book of the Year. It won two Indie Awards for Best Debut and Book of the Year, and won the Nielsen BookData Bookseller’s Choice Award this year. The GoodReads website voted it the Historical Novel of 2012. And the film rights have been snapped up.

Beautifully written (but a little heavy on the Aussie vernacular), “The Light Between Oceans” builds and builds emotion in the reader until its most wrenching moments are as devastating to you as they are to the characters.

Anyone reading this novel will feel a bit “put through the wringer” – it is painful to read at times. But parents in particular with wrestle with right and wrong. There are two sides to every story, and each side in this story is painful to consider.

In a wonderful setting, with great character depth, and a poignant story, “The Light Between Oceans” is a fantastic read.

Next week, I will wrap up my Summer Reading Challenge. Stay tuned to hear how it went.