The Light Between Oceans, M L Stedman, Scribner, 2012, 319 pp
I must say, my reading group picks so far this year have pleased me. This one is clearly women's fiction but was overall a rewarding read addressing heart-wrenching questions about motherhood.
Tom Sherbourne, an Australian WWI veteran, took a post as lighthouse keeper on a remote point in SW Australia. He had emotional wounds from the war so the solitude and required orderliness of his tasks suited him.
One day during his biannual leave, he met Isabel, the bold, rebellious, and only surviving child in a family who lost two sons in the war. Eventually they married and she moved to the lighthouse with him.
Though they were happy together, two miscarriages and a still birth had cast shadows over the marriage. When a small boat washes up carrying a dead man and a living baby, Isabel convinces her husband they should keep the baby, who is the answer to Isabel's prayers. So Tom compromises his moral principles and falsifies the lighthouse records to make his wife happy.
Of course, anyone who commits such treachery, no matter how good the reasons for doing so, must suffer eventually. Tom and Isabel pay in perhaps more ways than are plausible when the baby's real mother appears.
What I found intriguing about the story was the historical event of WWI having caused the loss of so many young men. A side of war not often considered is the pain, especially for mothers, of all those lost sons, not to mention the dearth of available young men to marry. Isabel suffered the loss of her brothers along with her parents. She remained their only living child and I thought she felt compelled to give her parents grandchildren. In her small town, there was not anyone she wanted to marry until Tom came along.
The birth mother of the found baby lost her husband due to war related issues. The baby was all she had left of a man she had loved dearly. Ultimately both women went to extremes over the little girl, producing loads of melodrama and tragedy for many people. I could see how such a result was traceable to the havoc of war.
While these conflicts were drawn out past the point of suspense to weariness for the reader, the novel rings true. Those two mothers had been driven to desperation and so could not find a way to reconcile. I'm not sure the effects on the child were realistic. The bittersweet ending felt less true. Can people really heal from war related familial damage in just one generation?
(The Light Between Oceans is currently available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)