The Light Between Oceans is an admirable debut novel, soon to be released as a film starring Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz and Alicia Vikander. Well-crafted, it is a light read that carries considerable emotional weight and sits comfortably on the frontier between popular and literary fiction. As well as the intriguing story, the novel is laden with the ghosts of the First World War. A story of characters facing difficult moral choices, the reader’s admiration for this novel will have a lot to do with their ability to sympathise with the characters fateful decisions.
Janus Rock is a tiny island off the south-western coast of Australia. Barely large enough to sustain a living for a few people, Janus inhabits troubled waters where the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean meet. A graveyard of shipwreck victims occupies a part of the island and, to protect the difficult trade route from further disaster, a lighthouse now dominates small Janus. The current lighthouse keeper on Janus has been relieved of his duty; the isolation and harsh conditions taking its toll on his sanity. The locals in the small town of Port Partageuse on the mainland are not surprised. They believe you’d have to be crazy to want to work in such conditions where even the toughest would struggle. They have their doubts about Tom Sherbourne, the new keeper, when he arrives, but they can’t deny that he is tough.
Tom is a simple, hardworking man and as tough as they come. Though you could never say that anyone is suited to life on Janus, Tom, a man of few words who keeps to himself, just might make it work. Working on the lights and acting for the safety of men at sea is a huge responsibility given to a trusted few. As a decorated veteran of the Great War, Tom appears to be someone who can be trusted with the responsibility though he wears the respect he is shown awkwardly. Tom has worked on the lights before, in short stints to relieve the permanent keepers. With the opening on Janus, Tom has the opportunity to secure a permanent position but he has his own reasons for seeking one.
Tom enlisted for the war to escape a troubled childhood but he has been trying to escape the war ever since. The war left a deep scar on the face of a young country and its mark can be seen everywhere. An entire generation of young men missing from the bars, the worksites, the offices, never to return to their families. Those that have are invariably broken, mad, drunk or violent. Physically, Tom has returned to Australia in one piece but this only adds to his torment. Haunted by the men he has killed and the men he has seen killed; of the mud and the gas and the terror and the blood; he is tormented by questions of what it was all for, what did it all mean and why was he allowed to come back unharmed. Tom does not seek solace in re-joining society or the company of others, even other veterans. Though he has an engineering degree, he neglects more prosperous employment for the isolation of lighthouse keeping. He just hadn’t figured on meeting Isabel.
Isabel Graysmark, a native to Port Partageuse, has not been left unscarred by the war either. In her family’s life there is the emptiness left by the deaths of her two older brothers in the war. Not having been there herself of course, unlike Tom, her experience is one of grief and loss rather than horror and terror. As such, she remains youthful, hopeful, friendly and even flirtatious with the new-to-town Tom who, in comparison, has aged beyond his years.
Tom can’t quite understand why this young woman has taken quite a liking to him. Frankly, neither does the reader either, although Port Partageuse is a quiet small town and perhaps the arrival of the tall, dark, mysterious, lonesome stranger is enough to arouse an interest. The correspondence between them is necessarily slow and prolonged once Tom begins his occupation of Janus which the supply boat visits infrequently. But Isabel’s optimism is infectious and, despite his demons, Tom succumbs to hope for a future with much more happiness in it than he previously allowed himself. Though, there remains a side to himself that he will never expose to Isabel.
Marriage soon follows and Isabel takes remarkably well to the loneliness, intense work and rough conditions on the small island of Janus to be with her husband. The thought of carrying, birthing and raising a child in such conditions would be unthinkable to some but to Isabel it would complete their existence and magnify their happiness. A child would make it all worth it.
No experience can evoke the isolation and dangers of Janus than to miscarry there. With no doctor, no hospital, no blood transfusion or family available; Isabel and Tom’s despair is as hopeless as it is complete. It is an experience that tears the thin pretence of strength both Tom and Isabel show outwardly and exposes the fragility of themselves and their relationship. Tom fears for his wife, their future and profoundly feels his own impotence to help her.
Then the boat arrives. A small boat washes ashore on Janus, in it is the body of a dead man and a live, screaming, baby. To Isabel, the arrival is fate. Her heart claims the child immediately. But to Tom, a man of honour, the baby means painful decisions to make, difficult moral paths to choose and the prospect of terrible consequences, and the child’s true identity, to one day face.
In The Light Between Oceans ML Stedman has written an admirable debut novel. As well as the intriguing plot, the novel is a light and easy read despite the heavy emotional and historical burden it carries. Stedman’s style is deceptively simple. The text is denuded of the superfluous; it includes only the essentials required for plot, setting, metaphor, mood and characterisation, but is rendered no less artful or poetic because of it. Instead, the minimalism combined with the emotion makes her words powerful. It is so well-crafted that I did at times have to put my lit-snob hat on and ask myself whether the novel is more craft than art, more popular fiction than literary. But I was convinced by the end of its literary quality.
Followers of this blog will know that The Light Between Oceans was not on my 2015 Reading List. Like Suite Française, I have bumped it up my queue in anticipation of the forthcoming film to be released this year, starring Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz and Alicia Vikander and filmed in New Zealand and Australia.
There are a couple of issues though. You might feel by the end that the plot was a little predictable. But to be fair, if you read this novel with an eye to the clues of foreshadowing the author uses, only some of them come to pass. Elsewhere, as the story unfolds, there are many possible outcomes and turns the story could have taken. It is a conceit of hindsight that may have made you feel it was predictable. Perhaps the author could have done more to make that seem less so, but that would not be in keeping with the minimalist style.
A more difficult obstacle for the writer of a novel like The Light Between Oceans is making the reader feel sympathetic towards characters making difficult moral choices; choices the reader may not themselves agree with. Tactics a writer may employ to bypass the problem include making the tragedy the result of a misunderstanding, leaving a key piece of information missing or staging events that none of the characters (nor the reader) could have foreseen. Alternatively you could make the character who makes poor choices evil or at least unlikeable. A likeable character, whose difficult choice is unfortunate rather than indefensible; that the reader still feels enormous sympathy for; within a story that does not create an excuse of ignorance for the character but means they make their fateful choice fully informed; is the Holy Grail for such a story. I think Stedman is trying to achieve something close to that in The Light Between Oceans. But I struggled to feel sympathy for the character who, in my view, makes an indefensible, though understandable, choice.
I don’t want to overstate this difficulty because the novel still contains much to be enjoyed. The presence of the First World War is heavy in the novel and is as great a part of the novel, and the reader’s experience, as the storyline. All the main characters and the small town have been deeply affected by it. It inhabits the novel in the form of grief for missing sons and brothers, prolonged and undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and atrocities against minorities that risk being forgotten.
The lighthouse is made a strong metaphor in The Light Between Oceans as it has been many times in literature. Sitting on a hidden rock between the calm, warm Indian Ocean and the wild Southern Ocean, the lighthouse on Janus Rock is a symbol of safety as well as danger. It is also a symbol for isolation; an isolation that perhaps makes difficult moral choices easier to live with. Like the two-faced Roman god it is named for, the reader on their journey to Janus Rock will also have to learn to see both ways.