Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans is a refreshingly honest and heart-wrenching work that is sure to stay with you weeks after finishing it.
It tells the story of war hero-turned-lighthouse keeper Tom, and his young, feisty wife Isabel, on the tiny, fictitious island of Janus Rock. Between the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean, on this small spot of land, the couple make a life altering decision: to keep a baby that is not theirs.
The arguably slow beginning of this novel becomes justifiable, proving to be a wave simply gaining momentum for a breath-catching climax.
Stedman builds the reader’s relationship with her characters admirably in the first third, offering us almost tactile details and a vulnerable hopefulness that leaves our stomachs in knots.
Stedman effortlessly paints the inner turmoil of a complicated man with acute observations and raw compassion, we take pity on poor Tom Sherbourne, whose guilt festers as the couple’s ‘adopted’ child grows.
She also captures the depth of a mother’s grief and the lengths to which they will go for their children with the quote:
I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life"
Stedman revels in the grey matter of her own novel – the lack of black and white answers to the questions of morals throughout the story, and has admitted herself, “I didn’t want there to be any ‘safe place’ in the book where the reader could relax and say, ‘I’m completely sure of what the right thing to do is here.’” (See full interview here).
One of the most refreshing about The Light Between Oceans is that the reader is not devoured by the age-old “we are all the same, and this is why you understand this book”.
Of course, Stedman implores us to have empathy for her traumatised characters, but where she breaks free is here, “No one ever has or ever will travel quite the same path on this earth, and that’s all right by him.”
For what feels like the first time, us readers are not united by what we have in common with each other and with the author's characters, but by what sets us apart from everyone else.
And after the emotional anguish Stedman has put us through, this thought, presented to us by the lighthouse keeper, Tom, is utterly liberating.
We are left with no questions as to why this novel took out so many categories at the Australian Publishers Awards. A true tribute to another time and an another place with a cast of full-bodied characters charged with authentic traumas of their own, The Light Between Oceans is a harrowing, yet must-read novel for all story lovers.