My interest was piqued by M.L. Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans the moment I saw the tagline on the cover: “This is a story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look exactly the same.” Now that’s right up my street. There’s nothing that turns me off a book quicker than an author who makes their characters either ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ and I love it when a book discards conventional morality and explores the genuine murkiness of the human heart.
After her appealing promise, Stedman did not disappoint me. Her story, which follows the fortunes of Australian lighthouse-keeper and war veteran Tom and his wife Isabel, was genuinely heartbreaking, as well as being deeply thought-provoking.
What does it mean to do the right thing? How can you ever know until it’s too late? These are the questions the book poses – and it addresses them in a very affecting way. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot as I felt it really heightened my appreciation of the book to be as blind about the future as Isabel and Tom as I was reading it, but I will say that it explores the issue of what it means to be a family. Can a family that has been shattered ever be repaired? How much of the familial bond is tied to biology? Interesting questions, if you ask me, and ones that Stedman deals with elegantly.
One of the best things about Stedman’s style is that she has a great lightness of touch – she is never preachy and she never takes sides. All her characters are given fair representation and if you find any of them despicable it is not because Stedman leads you to that conclusion. She paints no monsters, just as she champions no saints – you get the impression that she loves all her characters, without being blind to their faults – and that, to me, a tremendous writer makes.
There’s something very strange about reading a book by an author who clearly has a similar mindset to you – everything that moved the author to write moves you as a reader, every point that the author makes has you wishing that you had written it, or at least articulated it in your own mind as eloquently. To say that this book got under my skin would be a gross understatement. I wept for Stedman’s characters – but most importantly, I wept for characters with opposing interests equally – which really does pose questions about how one defines right and wrong.
If I was god, how would I judge Stedman’s characters for the sometimes terrible harm they do? The answer to that is that I don’t have a clue, and perhaps this is the legacy of The Light Between Oceans. I defy anyone to read this book and end up feeling surer about right and wrong than they were before they read it – but if that sounds unsatisfying, let me say that I found it the absolute opposite. It filled me with wonder at the complexity of life and all the little meandering paths that make it what it is.
So buy this book if you want beautiful prose, a gripping plot and characters so painfully, beautifully real you can practically hear them breathing on the sofa next to you. I promise you won’t regret it.