Dec 3, 2012

The Weeknight Book Club: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

I was one of those people at school who got a little excited whenever we studied novels for English Lit at school that were both written by Western Australians and set in my home state as well.  Elizabeth Jolley, Sally Morgan, Randolph Stowe are just some of the authors that come to mind.  Perth, Fremantle, Geraldton...  I always got a bit of a buzz seeing those words in print.

I wasn't just being parochial (a word Mrs W, Year 10 English was wont to use in conjunction with our lone tabloid sized newspaper with broadsheet aspirations) but I was fascinated that writers from our sleepy part of the country could become recognised literary figures both on a national and international level.  Reading their work helped me discover another, more complex, layer to living in a capital city the rest of Australia (and heck, even Lonely Planet) affectionately referred to as Dullsville.  The subtleties of race relations and social class in Perth over the decades, how the stark, diverse and at times harsh natural environment of our sprawling state could become the perfect backdrop for evocative studies of humans, their actions and their relationships.

Reading 'The Light Between Oceans' transported me back to the mind of that 15 year old girl in 'biscuit' ankle socks with a 'bottle green' tie gracing a drop waisted school uniform.  Written by the West Australian author, M.L. Stedman, 'The Light Between Oceans' is quite simply haunting and destined to remain in your thoughts long after you've read its last page.

The bare bones summary of the plot is as follows.  It's 1926 and Sydney sider Tom Sherbourne finds himself in Western Australia, a returned and decorated serviceman from the war.  He finds himself a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a 12 hour boat ride from the main coast.  The precision, routine and solitary nature of the job appeal to him.  Also, playing such a key role in guiding boats to safety gives him a chance to somehow repay humanity for all the souls who died at his hands during his service.

Tom's new life agrees with him and soon he finds love with Isabel, the daughter and only surviving child of a local headmaster.  Isabel's two brothers both died in service during the war and Isabel is often left wondering if she will ever fully compensate for the huge hole this has torn in her parents' lives.  Tom and Isabel marry and set off for a new life together on Janus.

Married life is wonderful to them both except in the area of parenthood.  Isabel suffers a number of early miscarriages before finally making it to 7 months in her final pregnancy.  The family on the mainland are ecstatic and the nursery in the lighthouse is set up.  Tragically, it was not to be.  Isabel suffers a traumatic still birth and survives it to become only a shadow of her normally bold and dynamic self.  She shuns medical assistance and somehow manages to recover with the help of Tom who feels grief not only for the baby they lost but also the passing of the girl he fell in love with.  The daily routine of life on Janus carries Isabel and Tom through the next few months.  There is much to do and the lighthouse needs to be maintained immaculately if it is to serve its purpose.

Fate brings a wrecked boat to Janus and with it a dead man and distressed baby girl.  It's all to obvious to Isabel what the right course of action is.  She mothers the baby as if it were her own, naming her Lucy.  She convinces Tom to bury the man on the island and to not mention the boat or its passengers in his daily records for the lighthouse.  Overnight, Isabel is transformed back to the woman she was before the pregnancy losses.  Tom's conscience is never quite put at ease and the irony of Isabel teaching Luck the importance of 'truth and honesty' isn't lost on him.

On the mainland, Lucy is welcomed by her maternal grandparents.  She is christened, cherished and content.  A chance meeting threatens this warm family dynamic when Isabel and Tom come face to face with Hannah, Lucy's widowed mother who never lost the hope that her daughter was still alive.  The charade continues though, and Hannah is none the wiser when she meets Lucy (whom Hannah and her husband christened as Grace).

The daughter of a wealthy landowner, Hannah's privileged life never quite compensated for the grief of losing both her husband and daughter to the sea.  A considerable reward remained open for any information leading to news of her family.  She haunts the local police station daily for updates.  It is unbearable for her to see young children and their mothers.  She never remarried.

However, after meeting Tom and Isabel, Hannah's conviction that her daughter is alive and well grows stronger.  She receives strange handwritten notes advising that her daughter is safe and well and to beg  her forgiveness for the author of the notes.  A chain of events relating to a significant increase in the reward offered sees Tom arrested for the suspected murder of Hannah's husband and minor offences relating to the restraining of a child on Janus.

Lives fall apart at this point.  Relationships fracture as the joy of one woman reunited with her child means that another has her brief period of happiness taken away from her.  Lucy/Grace suffers terribly and cannot understand who the new woman (or 'witch') as she portrays Hannah in her play acting) is and why she won't let her see her mummy and daddy.

I won't spoil the end of the novel for you by outlining the plot any further.  The ending is a surprise and all the central characters are accounted for in ways that I thought did them all justice.  I did shed some tears...

Within a cleverly constructed plot, M.L. Stedman has written a novel that is memorable for its ability to explore the issues of grief, abduction, dislocation and betrayal from unique perspectives.  She paints complex central characters, revealing bits of their past lives here and there in order to allow readers to understand their thoughts and actions within the time frame of the novel's action.  Beyond the characters is that vast Western Australian landscape and all that its elements symbolise - the desolation off the coast, the heat and isolation of the coast and that great distance of unforgiving land between its cities.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I do believe I will have to look into getting a copy of this book when it becomes available from the library.


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