Light Between Oceans (Stedman)

The Light Between Oceans
M.L. Stedman
Scribner
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451681758


Summary
The debut of a stunning new voice in fiction—a novel both heartbreaking and transcendent

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.

M. L. Stedman’s mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel’s decision to keep this “gift from God.” And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.

The Light Between Oceans is exquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
M.L. (Margot) Steadman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London. This is her first novel. (From the publisher.)

More
Excerpt from The Age (Australia).
Her official biography comprises a single line: ''M.L. Stedman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London.'' Even her first name, Margot, is concealed.

In only her second media interview, by phone from Perth, Stedman is nervous and bats back questions about her age, schooling, family and her work as a lawyer with a polite: ''I really don't want to answer that.'' Stedman later explains that she has never been one to seek out the limelight. ''As the book's not autobiographical, details of my life won't really shed light on the story for the reader and I'd much rather let readers focus on the book and their own experience of it.''

These are the dot points of her writing life that Stedman reluctantly offers for public consumption: raised and schooled in Perth, she says she always adored the artistry of words, had an affinity for them. Working in London as a lawyer in 1997, while staring at her office computer screen, she had a eureka moment, ''from God knows where'', deciding then to try creative writing. She hired a writing coach, went to Greece on a creative-writing holiday, where she wrote her first published short story, Flight, and went on to study creative writing part time at the University of London. Three novellas were published in an out-of-print anthology, Desperate Remedies, in 2008. Read more . . .



Book Reviews
As time passes the harder the decision becomes to undo and the more towering is its impact. This is the story of its terrible consequences. But it is also a description of the extraordinary, sustaining power of a marriage to bind two people together in love, through the most emotionally harrowing circumstances.
Victoria Moore - Daily Mail (UK)


This fine, suspenseful debut explores desperation, morality, and loss, and considers the damaging ways in which we store our private sorrows, and the consequences of such terrible secrets.
Martha Stewart Whole Living


(Starred review.) In Stedman’s deftly crafted debut, Tom Sherbourne, seeking constancy after the horrors of WWI, takes a lighthouse keeper’s post on an Australian island, and calls for Isabel, a young woman he met on his travels, to join him there as his wife. In peaceful isolation, their love grows. But four years on the island and several miscarriages bring Isabel’s seemingly boundless spirit to the brink, and leave Tom feeling helpless until a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a living child. Isabel convinces herself—and Tom—that the baby is a gift from God. After two years of maternal bliss for Isabel and alternating waves of joy and guilt for Tom, the family, back on the mainland, is confronted with the mother of their child, very much alive. Stedman grounds what could be a far-fetched premise, setting the stage beautifully to allow for a heart-wrenching moral dilemma to play out, making evident that “Right and wrong can be like bloody snakes: so tangled up that you can’t tell which is which until you’ve shot ’em both, and then it’s too late.” Most impressive is the subtle yet profound maturation of Isabel and Tom as characters.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review.) Haunting...Stedman draws the reader into her emotionally complex story right from the beginning, with lush descriptions of this savage and beautiful landscape, and vivid characters with whom we can readily empathize. Hers is a stunning and memorable debut
Booklist


(Starred review.) The miraculous arrival of a child in the life of a barren couple delivers profound love but also the seeds of destruction. Moral dilemmas don’t come more exquisite than the one around which Australian novelist Stedman constructs her debut.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the novel’s title, The Light Between Oceans. Why do you think the author selected this title? What do you visualize when you hear or read The Light Between Oceans?

2. The novel is rich with detailed descriptions of the ocean, the sky, and the wild landscape of Janus Rock. Is there a particular passage or scene that stood out to you? What role does the natural world play in Tom and Isabel’s life?

3. “The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm—the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” (page 110) Discuss the impact of living in seclusion on both Tom and Isabel. Why do you think each of them is drawn to live on Janus Rock? Do you think, in the moments when we are unobserved, we are different people?

4. When Isabel tries to get Tom to open up about his family, he responds: “I’ll tell you if you really want. It’s just I’d rather not. Sometimes it’s good to leave the past in the past.”(pages 44-45) Do you think it is possible to leave the past in the past? What do you think of Tom’s opinion that it’s a “pity” that we’re a product of our family’s past? What does this tell you about his character? Discuss the impact of family history on Tom, Isabel, Hannah, and Frank.

5. Tom is haunted by what he witnessed—and what he did—during his enlistment in World War I. The narrator reflects that he’s not “one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels….But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then.” (page 10) How do you think Tom’s experiences as a soldier impact his decisions throughout the novel? What other outside elements, like the war, influences the narrative?

6. Janus Rock is named for Janus, the Roman God of doorways, “always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things.” (page 65) How does this knowledge impact your reading of The Light Between Oceans? Who is “torn between two ways of seeing things”?

7. Discuss the theme of opposites in The Light Between Oceans—darkness and light; safety and danger; land and water; truth and lies. How do these opposing forces shape your reading?

8. When Isabel brings Tom the map of Janus, complete with new names for all the locations on the island, Tom has an interesting reaction: “Janus did not belong to him: he belonged to it, like he’d heard the natives thought of the land. His job was just to take care of it.” (page 62) Discuss the difference in Tom’s point of view compared to Isabel’s. Does this difference in opinion foreshadow future events? How does it relate to their conflicting opinions of what to do with Lucy?

9. Did you sense that the silver rattle might turn out to play a pivotal role in the story?

10. Tom believes that rules are vital, that they are what keep a man from becoming a savage. Do you agree with him?

11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

12. Tom and Isabel’s deception impacts the lives of everyone around them. What did you think of the other characters’ reactions when they discover the truth about Lucy? Consider Hannah, Gwen, Septimus, Isabel’s parents, Ralph, Bluey.

13. Discuss Hannah’s reunion with Grace. Do you think she had fair expectations? Did you agree with Dr. Sumpton’s advice to Hannah about completely cutting Lucy off from Isabel and Tom?

14. M.L. Stedman makes it clear that there is no one perfect answer to the question of who should raise Grace/Lucy. She seems to undermine all notions of absolutes. It is clear that she will not dismiss all Germans as evil either. There is Hannah’s husband, ripe for persecution, and yet he is utterly innocent. Discuss the places in the novel where easy certainty turns out to be wrong.

15. Were you surprised by Isabel’s final decision to admit her role in the choice to keep Lucy—freeing Tom, but losing her child forever? Why or why not? What would you have done?

16. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? What emotions did you feel at the story’s end? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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