Thomas (Tom) Sherbourne is the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock; a station built in 1889 on a remote island off the western Australian coast. He and his wife, Isabel Graysmark are the sole inhabitants; supplies are delivered by boat every few months and they have limited contact with the mainland settlement, Point Partageuse. Tom discovers a deceased man and baby in a dinghy on the beach. Assuming him the father, Isabel attempts to dissuade Tom the mother must have fallen out and they should withhold information about the incident. She calls the infant “a gift from God.” Traumatized for having fought and survived World War One, Tom is wracked with grief and guilt over Isabel’s two miscarriages and a stillborn birth. Despite uneasiness, he concedes to her request. They present the child as theirs, christen her, Lucy, and raise her in a loving secluded environs. The novel recounts events that result in Lucy’s birth mother, Hannah Roennfeldt, learning that her now two year old daughter, Grace Ellen, alive. The story expounds the consequences of the abduction, Hannah’s reunion with her child and the aftermath of those concerned. The Light Between The Oceans begins on Janus Rock as Isabel says “on the day of the miracle,” April 27, 1926 and concludes August 28, 1950 in Hopetoun, four hundred miles east of Point Partageuse.
The three-hundred and forty-three page book is well organized. A map of Australia provides insight about its extensive coastline; reveals the importance of lighthouses and situates places to track plot. The prologue in Part One sets the scene and identifies the causes of conflict fuelling the story. Backstory commencing December 16, 1918 fleshes out the major characters and motivation for their actions. Part Two begins April 27, 1926, ends with the police arresting Tom and the family’s departure from Janus Rock. The twelve chapters comprising Part Three focus on the primary action; the conclusion is laced with sorrow yet also glimmers of hope.
The novel will appeal to those interested in Australia with references to the virulent sea, a complex landscape, petrel birds and ghost gum trees picturing the country. Technical info re lighthouses is comprehensive and the moral code, position of trust and meticulous duties of a keeper, fascinating. Historical details with respect to the laws prohibiting a wife from being forced to testify against her husband strengthen context.
The author’s skill at imagery merits note and the following excerpt from the introductory paragraphs of Chapter 35 describing a Point Partageuse rainstorm serve an example:
“When it rains in Partageuse, the clouds hurt down water and soak the town to its very bones….The rivers quicken, finally scenting the ocean from which they have so long been parted….Women look in exasperation at washing not retrieved from lines, and cats slink through the nearest convenient doorway, meowing their disdain….The rain transforms the living and the dead without preference.”
The issues explored are complex including: what constitutes family, the definition of mother, the complexity governing choice and what determines right and wrong. The abduction is multi-layered and to present its case, the author employs viewpoints supplemental to Tom and Isabel’s: Hannah’s father and sister, law enforcement officials and townspeople. M. L. Stedman compels reader to reflect on what they would have done in similar circumstances.