Sometimes, I life gets busy and I don’t have a lot of time for book blogging. When that happens, I can usually manage to work in some reviewing UNLESS it occurs at the same time that I have a book that I consider to be a block – a book that gave me a lot of feelings and that I really do want to review well, but I just can’t seem to get my thoughts into coherent order. So September has had a busy start, and the next book on the review pile – The Light Between Oceans – has been one that I’ve been struggling to review. Hence, no reviews for this month, and a HUGE pile of books awaiting attention! So it’s time to at least attempt to get some thoughts down on this one.
It can sometimes be a bit awkward when someone loans you a book. I’m always scared that I’m not going to love it like this person does! And while I didn’t dislike The Light Between Oceans, it wasn’t really a book I probably would have picked up on my own, being a bit too ‘A Novel’ like for my tastes. Still, it was a decent read with an engaging premise and an excellent setting. The writing was beautifully evocative and I was genuinely drawn into the story. Although I have to say that Stedman does employ that irritating trick of randomly inserting present-tense paragraphs in the midst of a past-tense narrative. This drives me crazy and consistently felt jarring and odd. I think it’s supposed to ‘pull us into the moment’ or some such nonsense, but it really just felt like the editor missed a lot of chunks of the book that needed to be switched to past tense.
The book was loaned to me by my boss – I work for a small orchard, and the couple that own it are quite fantastic. The wife said that she made the mistake of cutting through the book section of our grocery store, and read a huge chunk of this book while she was standing in the aisle… and then went back the next day and bought it! I admired her self restraint, as I don’t think there is any way that I could have waited until the next day…
The setting is Australia, just after World War I. Tom is the main protagonist, a quiet man who just wants to put the war behind him and go on with his life. He ends up with a job as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island off the southwest coast, an excellent job for a reliable, steadfast, not-particularly-sociable man. Eventually, Tom marries Isabelle and brings her to the island, and they are very happy together. The only dark spot in their lives is Isabelle’s inability to carry a baby to term. After multiple miscarriages and a stillbirth, Isabelle is grieving for the family she cannot have. Only a week or so after her stillbirth, the ocean brings a small boat to the shore of the island. Inside of it is a dead man and a live baby.
What follows is a story of what happens when people try to build their lives on a lie. And while I could always see how this was all going to come crashing down sometime, Stedman makes the whole situation very plausible – I completely could understand Isabelle’s justifications, and could see how she could convince herself that they were true. The isolation of the island, the way the supply boat only comes twice a year and they only make it to the mainland every couple of years, makes the whole story possible. Watching Isabelle and Tom grow to love the baby that isn’t theirs is heartbreaking.
The big takeaway I really had from this book was how all of their troubles started when Isabelle convinced Tom to go against his conscience. Tom knew what was right and wanted to do it, but Isabelle forced him into a position where he had to choose between his convictions and his wife, something that no spouse should ever do to their beloved. It was SO heartrending to watch Tom continue to struggle with their choice and the lies they were telling, and while Isabelle was always a very sympathetic character, I just found her to be incredibly selfish. It was especially ironic because she married him for his integrity and reliability, and then basically emotionally blackmailed him into betraying himself.
On the other hand, it was easy to see the terrible toll that Isabelle’s miscarriages had had on her, and I found it very easy to believe that her mental health was struggling with grief and hormonal imbalances, so that the lies that she told became, at some level, truth for her. Sometimes our minds prefer to accept easy lies rather than difficult truths.
Of course, part of the trouble is that my husband’s name is Tom, and book-Tom reminded me a great deal of husband-Tom, so Isabelle’s lies and insistence on Tom’s lies somehow felt very personal!
I think the hard part about this book for me is that there wasn’t really a way to end it happily. There was going to be a lot of grief and sadness for someone somewhere (and there was), and I’m more of a happy-ending kind of girl. So while it was a decent ending, it was still sad, and I felt like Stedman made it even a little sadder than it had to be.
Overall, I wouldn’t personally reread this book, but I can see it having a great deal of appeal to many readers. It was an emotional and intense read with intriguing characters and a gripping story. While it was a bit too melancholy for my personal tastes, it never felt so in that pretentious way that many novels do – it was honest, not wallowing. The setting was perfection and the writing very beautiful. A 3.5/5 for me, but a book I would recommend to people who don’t mind books where not everyone gets a happy ending.