The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

 ‘This is the story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same.’

Synopsis

1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world.

Then one April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant – and the path of the couple’s lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.

Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they make that day – as the baby’s real story unfolds…

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The Light Between Oceans is the stunning debut novel from M.L Stedman.  From the very first chapter, we are taken into the heart of the story: who are the man and the baby washed ashore in the boat and what will Tom and Isabel do? It is this very dilemma which propels the story throughout, and makes for very compelling reading.

With wonderful descriptions and intricate details, M.L.Stedman takes us right into the fascinating and unusual world of lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne and his new wife Isabel. The simple, remote life they lead on Janus Rock seems idyllic, but we soon learn of the private battles they are facing. Tom is struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of fighting on the Western Front in the First World War and Isabel is desperate for a child.

After suffering traumatic miscarriages and a stillborn baby, Isabel retreats into a dark despair; her life empty without the children she so longs to share it with. Tom deals with their losses by throwing himself into his work; the methodical rhythms of the lighthouse giving him a sense of purpose and perspective. Only the regular visit of the supply boat from the mainland brings any sense of the rest of the world to the young couple.

When the boat is washed ashore, containing the body of a dead man and a crying infant, Tom and Isabel make a life-changing decision. From that moment on, the peaceful solitude of life on Janus Rock is left behind, and Tom and Isabel’s life begins to fall apart as they struggle to find a way to contain their secret within their relationship. While Tom is wracked with guilt about what they have done, Isabel remains steadfastly resolute; certain that it was God’s will and that they have done nothing wrong. Until, that is, they return to the mainland and discover the truth about the baby.

With a wonderful cast of characters, who each add their own story to that of Tom and Isabel’s, this is a novel which has a believable plot, beautiful writing and is ultimately a book you simply can’t put down. The story is about many things: the relationship between a husband and wife, the relationship between a mother and her child and the ties that bind a family. With a haunting sense of loss ever present, there is real emotional depth to the narrative.

Although the novel is set in 1926, it never feels as though it is dwelling in the history of the post War period unnecessarily – and actually reads like a very contemporary novel with real human issues and emotions at the forefront throughout. Through her beautiful writing, M.L Stedman handles the difficult, traumatic issues which lie at the heart of the novel, sensitively and assuredly.  There is also a lovely lightness of touch in places, which brings in some tender moments between mother and daughter and a beautifully depicted innocence in the way the child’s dialogue is written.

By creating an unimaginable dilemma for her main characters, M.L.Stedman has crafted a compelling story and as the fate of the central characters moves towards its surprising conclusion, I couldn’t put it down.

In our hectic, modern lives, it often feels like a luxury to curl up with a good book, never mind treating ourselves to buy it in the first place. Our time, and money, is precious and we want the investment we make in reading a book, to be worthwhile. Reading The Light Between Oceans was not just time well spent; it was time thoroughly enjoyed. And I, for one, feel all the richer for having read it.

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I was lucky enough to meet the author recently. Here, in her own words, are her thoughts on the process of writing this wonderful book.

Where did you first get the inspiration for ‘The Light Between Oceans’?

When I write, I just let a picture or a voice or a sentence come to me, and follow where it leads. For The Light Between Oceans, I closed my eyes, and I could see a lighthouse, and then a woman at the lighthouse. At first I thought maybe the story was about her. I could tell that it was set a long time ago, on an island off Australia. Then quite quickly a man came along, and I knew he was the lightkeeper and it was really his story. Then a boat washed up, with a dead man, and I discovered there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see what happened!

Was this always the title, or did the book have a different working title?

The very earliest drafts were just stored as ‘Lighthouse Story’ in my computer, but The Light Between Oceans came up within a couple of months. I toyed with other titles, but nothing quite stuck. Publishers often change the title of books, too, so I was happy when they said they were going to keep it.

Were there any memorable high or low points during the writing process?

I started writing it in Spring 2008, and finished the first draft of the novel in June the following year. I did a few more drafts after that, but I wasn’t working on it full time, so all together it probably took a little over 2 years. High point: any day on which I got to sit down and just write for as long as I wanted. That’s my idea of heaven. Low point: having 3 irrecoverable hard drive failures on my Mac, and having to piece together my files. Fortunately, after the first one I became obsessive about backing things up.

Why did you choose this particular period of history as the setting?

It just emerged as the time in which the story was set, rather than being a conscious choice. And it’s such a rich period of Australian history that it offered a great deal of scope in exploring themes like right and wrong, loyalty and forgiveness.

What would be a ‘typical’ writing day for you?

There really isn’t such a thing as a ‘typical’ writing day for me, except insofar as I only write in the daytime – never at night. I’m rather allergic to rules about writing, and chafe against edicts such as ‘you must write at least an hour a day’ or ‘you must plot everything in advance’. My philosophy is ‘find out what works for you, and do that: everyone is different’. So I wrote this book on my sofa, in the British Library, in a cottage by the beach in Western Australia, on Hampstead Heath, and anywhere else that felt right.

Can you tell us about the research you carried out for the book?

As to location, I grew up in Western Australia, so the ocean and light and wild
weather and vastness are in my blood. When I was writing, I did spend some time down in the area near where the story is set, just getting the feel of the particular place, and sitting gazing out over the ocean or exploring the dense forests in the area. As to the more technical aspects, I adored researching them. The British Library has some excellent histories of Western Australia’s involvement in the Great War, as does the Australian War Memorial, where there’s a wealth of original records accessible on line. The stories they tell are plainly told and intensely moving. For lighthouses, I read some fabulous books on the history of their development, and visited West Australian lighthouses. I also went to the Australian National Archives, and trawled the lightkeepers’ old logbooks and correspondence files. It was a very peculiar feeling to open the pages of these fragile leather registers, knowing that the person who wrote in them could never have imagined that in the next century, a writer would be looking through them. I felt enormously privileged to read about their daily lives in their own words.

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The Light Between Oceans is published today, 26th April 2012 by Doubleday. Thank you to Alison Barrow for the review copy and to the author for her fascinating insights above.

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