Friday October 5, 2012
Unforgettable tale of love
Review by VALENTINE CAWLEY
There are plans to adapt this brilliant debut novel for the big screen. Our reviewer says: read the book first — you won’t be disappointed.
The Light Between Oceans
Author: M.L. Stedman
Publisher: Doubleday, 362 pages
IMAGINE you live alone, with your husband or wife, tending a lighthouse on a small island far out to sea, remote from all humanity. You have just buried your third child, stillborn. You feel unbearable grief. Life is hopeless and forlorn. Then, while attending to the grave of your recently departed son, you hear a baby’s cry on the wind. Startlement turns to hope. You rush to investigate and find a baby in a boat that has washed ashore. In the boat is a dead man, presumably its father. What would you do? Would you report the lost baby as found? Or would you, in your grief, take the baby as your own, to replace the others lost?
That is the dilemma facing Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel at the opening to this heart-rending book. It is an unforgettable opening to an unforgettable tale that will stay with you long after you have turned the final page. It is a story that prompts one to reflect on life, love and what it means to be good in a world that so often isn’t.
At its core, this is a book about love. However, its take on love is far from traditional. Stedman shows us how love can corrupt a life, and lead even the most moral of people astray for the very best of reasons. I cannot recall a book in which love, the most potent and rewarding of human emotions, brings about so much misfortune to all touched by it, except perhaps Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet.
It is also a book about how the past may haunt people throughout their lives. Tom Sherbourne is a former soldier who survived World War I without a scratch while many of his comrades died in horrific circumstances. Those memories haunt him, indeed pursue him, for many years. He chooses to work in a lighthouse far from civilisation in order to find peace away from the horrors of war – yet within him he carries those echoes of death: they fill his dreams and colour his days. He is never truly free of death.
Yet he finds love and a new life, and through it he undergoes a kind of rebirth. However, this love is not without its price – and the ramifications of that love, and its consequences, permeate the entire book, lending it an unexpectedly tragic quality.
Stedman shows an often touching understanding for human feeling and relationships. She attends to the merest details of how people relate to each other and the meanings that lie behind the simplest of deeds and words. Her writing style is clear and simple, adorned on occasion with pithy phrases that memorably capture a thought, a feeling, an intention, or a person’s character.
Another theme is that of madness – and of how it may be intertwined with love, the latter evoking the former in times of great distress. However, I must note that I found some elements of this aspect of the book less convincing than the rest, in that I believe that few people would be driven to the actions of one of the main characters even in the dire circumstances described. This plotting showed a little less faith in the power of love by Stedman than I myself hold. Yet, as written, the tale does evoke an entrancing degree of emotional tension in the reader.
This is Stedman’s first published novel. As such, it exceeded my every expectation, for what a first literary outing it is. I am rarely emotionally affected by a book, yet by the end of this one I found myself deeply moved. There is, perhaps, no greater a sign than this that Stedman is a writer of talent. Her gift lies in conveying the intricate geography of human relations, the anatomy of love, and the manner in which great love seeps into every corner of a life, changing it forever – though not always for the better. She is a writer who not only understands human feeling and has clearly reflected much upon it, and life, but is able to invoke feelings in the reader, too. In short: her words touch the reader.
The Light Between Oceans is being published in at least 24 territories and is going to be made into a film. There is a definite filmic quality to the plotting, the characterisation and the emotional intensity of the book that makes me believe that this film will definitely be one worth watching. However, I will say this: read the book first. You won’t be disappointed.