This is M L Stedman’s debut novel, released in 2012. The story is set in the 1920’s, on Janus Rock, a tiny island off the Western Australian coast. Tom and Isabel Sherbourne are the sole inhabitants of Janus, where Tom is the lighthouse-keeper. They are meant to be good people, upstanding citizens, and have an idyllic life, both of them enjoying the isolation.
The one thing they want but can’t have is children. Isabel has had multiple miscarriages, the most recent one seven months’ into the pregnancy. They are still grieving when a boat with a baby and a dead man washes up on the shore, so they make the decision to keep the child.
Consequences follow—not just for Tom and Isabel who must live a lie, but also for the real mother of the child.
The style of writing is more commercial than that to which I’m usually drawn. However, the plot had me riveted—I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I kept my reading light on way past my bedtime—I had to know what happened. I’m not surprised by the book’s popularity or that Dreamworks is turning it into a movie.
I don’t think the premise explores a grey area so much as it explores the consequences of a selfish decision, but one made by desperate people at a vulnerable time. Everyone knows it’s wrong to keep a child that isn’t theirs: it’s kidnapping and it’s a crime. The grey area comes because the reader can understand Tom and Isabel’s decision to keep the child—the desperation that might follow three miscarriages.
‘The labour was as quick as it was early, and Tom watched helpless as a baby—it was unmistakably a baby, his baby—emerged from Isabel’s body. It was bloody and small: a mocking, scale-model of the infant they had so long been waiting for, drowned in a wash of blood and tissue and mess from the woman so unprepared for its arrival.’
Then, the attempts to justify their decision. In this exchange, Tom is speaking first:
‘Then the baby’s probably got a mother waiting for it somewhere on shore, tearing her hair out. How would you feel if it was yours?’
‘You saw the cardigan. The mother must have fallen out of the boat and drowned.’
‘Sweetheart, we don’t have any idea about the mother. Or about who the man was.’
‘It’s the most likely explanation, isn’t it? Infants don’t just wander off from their parents.’
‘Izzy, anything’s possible. We just don’t know.’
‘When did you ever hear of a tiny baby setting off in a boat without its mother?’ She held the child a fraction closer.
‘This is serious. the man’s dead, Izz.’
‘And the baby’s alive. Have a heart, Tom.’
I did feel a little frustrated with the plot towards the end, and with Isabel’s selfishness once their secret was out, but I shed a tear in the final scenes despite myself.
This is probably not a book for readers of literary fiction, but if you like a page-turner with a prickly premise, you will thoroughly enjoy this.
‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M L Stedman, Simon and Schuster, 2012.
This is another review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2014. See my progress with this year’s challenge here.