What happens when an inexplicable event falls outside of our moral signposts? Without a universal compass, how does one decide what is the right thing to do? These are the questions M.L. Stedman examines in her achingly beautiful, gracefully written novel The Light Between Oceans.
Tom Sherbourne, honorably discharged from WWI combat, returns to his native Australia physically whole, but “scarred all the same.” Filled with an unnamed darkness, he enlists in the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service hoping that “if he can only get far enough away – from people, from memory – time will do its job.” Ultimately he lands a solitary position on Janus Rock, where he begins to find peace in the lighthouse keepers’ rules and regulations. Like Janus, the Roman god with two faces who looks both ahead and to the past, Tom is cursed with an ability to see life’s dualities, “torn between two ways of seeing things.” Simply maintaining the light house, lighting the flame each evening and extinguishing it every morning, and keeping the log book with its "gospel truth," helps tether Tom to this world and keep his internal darkness at bay.
During one shore leave, Tom meets and falls in love with Isabel Graysmark, a young woman who brings levity and light back into his life. They marry and return together to Janus. Two miscarriages leave Isabel heartbroken; a third stillborn child leaves her on the brink of sanity. Yet two weeks after they bury their unnamed child, a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a live baby. Isabel believes the baby is a “gift from God” and convinces Tom not to record the event but to raise the baby as their own : “Love’s bigger than rule books, Tom,” she tells him. Instead of reporting the truth, Tom leaves a space in the logbook hoping to change Isabel’s mind later. Although Tom loves Isabel and the baby, he also knows that recording the truth is the one act that can fight impending chaos. He is left with “a heaviness in his chest, and a sense of sliding back into the darkness he thought he had escaped.”
Two years later Tom and Isabel return to the mainland where they learn their decision has far reaching ramifications. Isabel’s parents, who lost two sons in the war, see the child as a new beginning, while others are left bereft. Their subsequent actions and reactions remind us that few decisions are made in a vacuum, and one person’s hope is another’s despair. As Tom sadly observes, “A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.”Remarkably, Stedman does not favor one character over another, nor does she judge their actions. She is the log keeper, the story teller, and she relates the unfolding events truthfully and elegantly. There is no universal right or wrong here; like Janus, everyone is right and wrong, and it is up to the readers to decide with whom they agree.