The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman – a look inside the pages
In 1916 Samuel Crothers published an article in Atlantic Monthly titled, ‘A Literary Clinic’, where he referenced the idea of ‘bibliotherapy’ – the idea that the right book could be the solution to illness. Bagster, a character within the article advises that, ‘you must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels’. Upon picking up and reading The Light Between Oceans I discovered this book could do just that.
Honest from the start, Stedman promises that, ‘this is a story of right and wrong and how sometimes they look the same’.
The Light Between Oceans centres on Tom and Isabel Sherbourne. As lighthouse keepers living on a remote island, they’re faced with a choice – keep or give up an apparently orphaned baby, Lucy.
Armed with the basic premise of a morally questioning story, I went into this book with my own preconceived set of beliefs dictating what choice I myself would have made. This predetermined moral compass is something we all bring to every piece of fiction we consume. It dictates how we react to fictionalised situations, pick our favourite characters, and whether or not we’ll like a book at all. The point of this story is to make you question your own moral compass. Stedman does so with beautifully written prose and engaging characters, both of which strike the reader just at the right moments.
The Light Between Oceans is relentless in its morally questioning endeavour. Stedman artfully employs her characters to personify the different perspectives which she asks you to consider. To begin, Stedman encourages you to side with Tom, and sympathise with Isabel, but before long you find yourself switching back and forth. You become torn in a way in which you perhaps didn’t imagine you could be. Tom’s own moral questions mirror the readers. He debates with himself, noting how, ‘always it would come down to the simple questions: could he deprive Isabel of this baby? If the child was alone in the world? Could it really be right to drag her away from a woman who adored her, to some lottery of fate?’ Time and again, Stedman asks you to question what is “right”. Thus slowly bringing you to the realisation that perhaps nothing is ever that simple. Love, guilt, loss, and forgiveness are all a part of the human experience and form an orchestra of emotions which come into play with each and every decision we make, and the far-reaching consequences that go beyond them. These emotions are complex and expansive, especially love.
Love is a concept human beings have always struggled to fully define and comprehend. Some accept it with ease regardless of its form, others are more questioning and hesitant, afraid of what it might mean. Stedman displays the complexities of love through the Sherbournes, as Isabel takes to loving baby Lucy like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Whether or not the child is really hers to love. Tom, however, is more tentative, perplexed, and a little afraid of these feelings which grow and grow on him. Isabel highlights this disparity between their reactions. She encourages her husband, ‘It’s just love, Tom. No need to be scared of love’. Yet, it remains something that seems to amaze Tom even as Lucy grows as he whispers to her in a tender moment, ‘how did you ever make me feel like this?’ These softly whispered lines are examples of Stedman’s skilful writing style. They’re quite lines, usually whispered, or off-handedly spoken by her characters. To the reader, they feel monumental; echoes of immense feelings where love and confusion meld. Stedman beautifully underpins how love doesn’t always make sense, but it remains immensely powerfully and a strong driving force.
‘He struggles to make sense of it – all this love, so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens.’
Stedman reiterates the grip of love by pairing it with the sting of loss. Just as each character loves, each has lost it too. Tom faces survivor’s guilt from the war; Hannah loses her beloved husband and daughter; Isabel loses her brothers, just as many in town lost sons and fathers too. The Light Between Oceans manages to articulate humanities lack of comprehension of our own emotions, of our own love and loss, as Isabel reflects on her fourteen-year-old-self coming to terms with the deaths of her brothers.
‘As a fourteen-year-old, Isabel had searched the dictionary. She knew that if a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent loss a child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or daughter. That seemed odd. As to her own status, she wondered whether she was still technically a sister, now that her adored brothers had died.’
Loss and love are paired much in the same way as choice and guilt. Stedman captures the lightning rod pangs of fear and pain that jolt the guilt-ridden mind and body. Tom faces this ache constantly as he adapts to living with the decision he and his wife made. One of Stedman’s biggest strengths in The Light Between Oceans is her sentence crafting skill. They provoke visually poignant scenes in the eye of the reader. She does this as she depicts the guilty Tom’s faces as he takes Lucy away from the make-shift grave of her real father: ‘but as he held her, he was for the first time in years acutely aware that the hands that now touched her were the hands that had heaved her father into the grave‘. Stedman truly encapsulates the confusing fusion of love and guilt as Tom reflects on the cacophony within his consciousness:
‘he struggles to make sense of his emotions- how he can feel both tenderness and unease when she kisses him goodnight or presents a grazed knee for him to kiss better with the magic power that only a parent has. For Isabel, too, he is torn between the desire he feels for her, the love and the sense that he cannot breathe. The two sensations grate at one another, unresolved.’
Tom is eventually faced with the undeniable physical proof of the pain he created. He meets Hannah, Lucy’s real mother, ‘the figure who had existed in the abstract was now a living woman, suffering every minute because of what he had done’. The pain grows and continues throughout the climax and resolution of the story as each character is forced to face the consequences of Tom and Isabel’s decision.
It can be hoped that wherever there are mistakes, loss, and guilt, forgiveness and acceptance can also be found. Stedman explains forgiveness rather profoundly through Frank, a man experienced in forgiveness. Stedman does this deftly in her usual softly spoken manner, as Frank describes to his wife how it is perhaps less about someone deserving forgiveness, and more about your own sanity, ‘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 the bad things.’
The idea of bibliotherapy suggests books can assist in illness. Not necessarily illness of the body, or illness of the mind as we know it. Books can be life-changing, inspiring, they can challenge your calcified mindsets, they can teach you things, and encourage empathy. Stedman’s story is compelling, beautifully written, questioning, and challenging. It reaches deep within the reader to encourage them to think further about their own moral views and how complex we actually are as people. Because of this relentless exploration, it can be argued that Stedman’s story would be the perfect antidote to the morally-set, black-and-white thinker. It encourages deep thought and reflection on the choices we make and even the way we feel. The Light Between Oceans is a story about choice, yes. But more than that it is a story about love, loss, forgiveness, and in all, a story about the complexity of human emotion and how little we really, truly understand it.