Book review: ‘The Light Between Oceans,’ by M.L. Stedman
November 13, 2016
How far would you go for the one you love? Does bending the rules apply if it is good people doing the twisting? The notion that the end justifies the means, if well-intentioned, is not an uncommon thematic framework for dramatic literature, but it is often a challenging one to carry forward effectively throughout a novel, ideally with the reader's sympathies torn, engaged and emotionally divided among the characters.
Debut author M.L. Stedman's runaway best-seller "The Light Between Oceans" finds the literary sweet spot among the tensions that such a dilemma creates, delivering a powerfully rendered tale of deep love and even deeper loyalty and, as a dramatic counterpoint, the fierce determination to do what is right.
Also a recently released movie, starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, "The Light Between Oceans" draws the reader into the drama in the opening scene, with the author using the primal lure of a child's cry of distress to build instant sympathy for the protagonists, lighthouse keeper Tom and his sorrowful wife, Isabel, who rescue the squalling infant from a boat with only one other passenger, who is dead.
With the child's arrival to their lighthouse station on the remote island off the western coast of Australia, Isabel is certain that fate has intervened in her darkest hour, one which finds her tending the lonely, windswept grave of a stillborn child, her latest in a string of failed pregnancies. Fiery, impulsive and full of dreams, Isabel sees possibility where her husband, whose moral compass has never faltered, sees religiously adhered-to log reports and a strict commitment to rules and regulations.
Stedman builds a polished and enthralling narrative against this lonely backdrop, and the inevitable snare of impending heartbreak looms large as the two lovers struggle to do what is right in a world of wrong turns. Tom ponders, worries and analyzes; he wants to know the whys and what fors of life, having nearly lost his in the devastation of World War I. Isabel is an ocean apart from Tom's constancy of spirit. She is youthful and light-hearted, and she believes in possibilities, like the infinity of happiness, even when it is clearly impossible.
For every person who gains something in the book, another person loses, and therein lies the bittersweet kernel at the core of Stedman's devastatingly gripping story of love and loss. Almost Shakespearean in its tragic overtones, "The Light Between Oceans" makes it clear early on that there will be no winners in this tale of failed best intentions.
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The reader watches helplessly as the tsunami of grief grinds across the ocean floor in slow motion toward the lonely lighthouse and the blossoming family's facade of calm, and there is a growing awareness that the ripple effects of the fateful arrival of this child in need will hit everyone. Stedman is unrelenting, building a complex narrative into an ingenious puzzle of right and wrong.
In life, there is no option for going back; there is only the persistent option of going forward, and therein lies the opportunity to do what is right and to love fiercely, day after day, heartbreak after heartbreak, pulling the human experience toward the light that connects us all.
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