This book purports to be all about choices, but there was also something very fatalistic about it to me. There's something about inevitable tragedies that are beyond frustrating and yet completely irresistible all at the same time. So many small (or not so small) choices that ultimately bring utter heartbreak for everyone involved, yet no matter how you work the issue over in your head, there's really no other way it could have worked out. M. L. Stedman has conjured up a perfect illustration of this conundrum in "The Light Between Oceans", a beautifully written, atmospheric and complex rumination on loyalty, love and morality.
The setting of the novel is a remote island off the coast of Australia with a population of two - husband and wife Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who care for the lighthouse. Despite the isolation, newlyweds Tom and Isabel love each other and have an idealistic vision of their future, filled, inevitably, with a house full of children running around. When that dream is tragically shattered over and over again, in a place where they have no one but each other, it's not hard to imagine and even sympathize with Isabel's state of mind as she decides to keep the apparent miracle sent to them. At the same time, Tom's by-the-books sense of duty is equally as justifiable, as is his ultimate choice to stand by his wife. I grew so attached to Tom and Isabel that I could feel myself rooting for them to keep their secret forever and be happy with Lucy, though that's perhaps not the morally correct thing to do, and inevitably, it's not their fate.
Tom and Isabel believe, or perhaps try to convince themselves, that because the baby's father died at sea, her mother must have too. Indeed, this outcome would have been the only way for everyone involved to get everything they want, so of course it's not the case. I found it more difficult to connect to Hannah, the baby's birth mother, perhaps because she had been introduced much later than Tom and Isabel and she, too, makes choices that are seemingly incomprehensible. And if you think the only choice revolves around what to do with baby Lucy, you are in for huge surprises and twists, like I was, as things get impossibly messier when that secret begins to unravel.
Stedman's writing is beautiful, descriptive and engrossing, and the book was read in just a few hours. If I had any small issue with the book it would be that it seemed to get a bit redundant in the middle section, particularly with Tom grappling over his loyalty to his wife and his sense of morality. It seemed his confusion didn't evolve much, and he just ended up going in circles for a long while. But perhaps even that was intentional, as the reader grows more frustrated with Tom's dilemma, yet can offer no easy way out. "The Light Between Oceans" is a fantastic debut novel, with an ending that left me in tears and thought-provoking Big Questions that should keep readers thinking and discussing long after the book is put down.
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