I read The Light Between Oceans by ML Steadman for a long-distance book club with my mom, sisters & best friend!
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.
SPOILER ALERT: that one other person so devastated by their choice is the baby’s surviving relative. (Um, duh.) You can see right away that this is leading up to an emotional trainwreck, right?
I liked the book: it was interesting and compelling. I enjoyed the writing and the imagery (though sometimes there were too many images too close together, too incongruous: let them breathe! Let them resonate! Sheesh), and I found the plot very interesting. I liked how the past influenced the present, and the reverberations of the war and the loss of children echoed through so many characters.
The book is (about 98%) a tragedy. I like tragedies. However, I’m not totally convinced this is a great tragedy. Take a Shakespearean tragedy: Hamlet shows us how he who hesitates is lost. Macbeth shows us the consequences of “vaulting ambition.” Romeo and Juliet shows us the folly of feuding.
And The Light Between Oceans? It might want to show us that honesty is the best policy (yay aphorisms), but I’m not quite sure it achieves that, since even the honest and innocent characters reap negative consequences as shown on the pages. So to me it felt like rather than reaching for some sort of overarching, universal truth, the novel seems to point toward only a specific solution for these particular characters in this particular situation.
To quote one Amazon reviewer:
I do not feel enlightened, or that I have understood a moral quandary any better. I just feel terribly sad about what happens to all the main characters . . .
According to Aristotle, the point of tragedy is catharsis, right? An emotional release and a lesson learned through vicarious pain, basically. But if the lesson isn’t learned, then is the tragedy working? What do you think?