Okay. I think I am ready to write this review. I read The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman over the course of two days, but it’s taken me the three weeks since to be ready to write about it. The story follows Tom, a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island carrying weighty memories from the first world war and his wife, Isabel. Isabel is his light and joy, but a series of miscarriages and still births leave her drowning in her own grief. When a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a living baby, Tom and Isabel are faced with a difficult choice: report the death immediately or claim the baby as their own? Tom wants to report the death and search for any family that might be looking for the baby. Isabel wants to raise the baby themselves. They both fall in love with her, and the further they get from the event, the more complicated things become.
I knew from the publisher’s description that the story would tug at my heartstrings, but I haven’t had such a visceral reaction to a book since Me Before You. Despite a slow start, I couldn’t put it down once the story got going. The combination of page-turning action and heartbreaking premise meant I ended up finishing the book on the porch so I could cry in peace.
With that sort of lead up, how could you not want to read this?! (Sorry about that.) I’ll just say this: If you like a good cry, this is a great book. If you don’t, this is still a good book. I generally steer clear of books described as thought provoking or haunting because I much prefer something funny to something sad. If this hadn’t been a book club selection, I might not have picked it up despite the high praise it’s been getting. It was a book club selection, though, so I did read it. And since then, my thoughts keep coming back to specific scenes that were simply beautiful.
My oldest brother died when I was small enough to only sort of understand. The older I get, the more I understand (even a bit) the grief my mother and siblings must have felt (and must still feel). This particular quote pulled me out of the story enough that I knew I needed to write it down. “As a fourteen-year-old, Isabel had searched the dictionary. She knew that if a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent lost a child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or daughter. That seemed odd. As to her own status, she wondered whether she was still technically a sister, now that her adored brothers had died.”
The part of my heart that is a mother of young children really struggled with this book. But the part of my heart that is a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend identified with so many of the characters in a way that really speaks to the author’s ability to distill the complicated (and often connected) experiences of love and loss into just a few words. There were some tender moments, too, smashed right up against the difficult ones. I found that juxtaposition made both seem more real.
Our book club discussion was fantastic. We capped off the night by watching a trailer for the upcoming movie. The Light Between Oceans was difficult to read at times, but it was beautiful. The story resolved in a way I could be happy with, and I’ve thought often about the lives and relationships depicted. I can’t say I was particularly surprised to find out that M. L. Steadman is Australian. So many of my favorite authors are. I will definitely read whatever she writes next, but I might need to give myself a pep talk first.