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, 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, who keeps meticulous records and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel insists the baby is a “gift from God,” and 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.
In The Light Between Oceans, a stoic, fiercely principled, rather solitary man, recently returned from serving in World War I, meets an effervescent young woman who desperately wants to be a mother. After marrying and settling on a remote island off Western Australia, Tom and Isabel suffer through two miscarriages and a stillbirth. She has just buried their dead child when another baby literally washes up on their shore, accompanied by her lifeless father.
They see this moment as a karmic sign, a fulfilment of their desires to at last bear a child. But although Isabel is adamant that the childs arrival is so serendipitous that it must surely be divine intervention, pragmatic Tom is beset by the unshakeable feeling that the child, unlike Janus, could surely not exist in isolation, and that somewhere she must have a family.
The consequence, of course, is that the Sherbournes happiness is built on what can only be the misery of others, and Tom finds this a moral dilemma he cant abide. And surely enough, just like the lighthouse at Janus, the child, Lucy, becomes the light between two oceans, a force that both unites and divides.
This division gradually extends and expands as Tom desperately tries to make things right by anonymously contacting a woman whom he suspects is Lucys mother, setting into motion a chain of events that render the illuminating force of the light not a halcyon savour, but rather the cause of the clash between two oceans that, much like the Indian and South Oceans themselves, are utterly different in origin, force and nature. At this point in “The Light Between Oceans,” the pounding surf turns into soapsuds and the brine into tears.
At the heart of this novel is a compelling human story and a complex moral dilemma, and it’s not difficult to guess what that is. The Sherbournes cannot avoid the mainland completely and a trip back to Partageuse to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the lighthouse on Janus Rock changes everything. Novelists often seem to direct the reader to react to the characters in a certain way, to sympathise or to judge, and I really didn’t feel that here; instead I sensed that this was written with great compassion. All of the main characters are good people in an impossible situation; happiness at someone else’s expense is both fragile and dangerous. This is superb storytelling which finds expression in beautiful language.