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The Light Between Oceans: A Novel
by M. L. Stedman

Published: 2012-07-31
Hardcover : 345 pages
9 members reading this now
71 clubs reading this now
51 members have read this book
The years-long New York Times bestseller soon to be a major motion picture from Spielberg’s Dreamworks that is “irresistible…seductive…with a high concept plot that keeps you riveted from the first page” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, ...
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Introduction

The years-long New York Times bestseller soon to be a major motion picture from Spielberg’s Dreamworks that is “irresistible…seductive…with a high concept plot that keeps you riveted from the first page” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

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.

Editorial Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2012: Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a tiny island a half day’s boat journey from the coast of Western Australia. When a baby washes up in a rowboat, he and his young wife Isabel decide to raise the child as their own. The baby seems like a gift from God, and the couple’s reasoning for keeping her seduces the reader into entering the waters of treacherous morality even as Tom--whose moral code withstood the horrors of World War I--begins to waver. M. L. Stedman’s vivid characters and gorgeous descriptions of the solitude of Janus Rock and of the unpredictable Australian frontier create a perfect backdrop for the tale of longing, loss, and the overwhelming love for a child that is The Light Between Oceans. --Malissa Kent

Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the novel’s title, The Light Between Oceans. Why do you think the author selected this title? What do you visualize when you hear or read The Light Between Oceans?

2. The novel is rich with detailed descriptions of the ocean, the sky, and the wild landscape of Janus Rock. Is there a particular passage or scene that stood out to you? What role does the natural world play in Tom and Isabel’s life?

3. “The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm—the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” (page 110) Discuss the impact of living in seclusion on both Tom and Isabel. Why do you think each of them is drawn to live on Janus Rock? Do you think, in the moments when we are unobserved, we are different people?

4. When Isabel tries to get Tom to open up about his family, he responds: “I’ll tell you if you really want. It’s just I’d rather not. Sometimes it’s good to leave the past in the past.”(pages 44-45) Do you think it is possible to leave the past in the past? What do you think of Tom’s opinion that it’s a “pity” that we’re a product of our family’s past? What does this tell you about his character? Discuss the impact of family history on Tom, Isabel, Hannah, and Frank.

5. Tom is haunted by what he witnessed—and what he did—during his enlistment in World War I. The narrator reflects that he’s not “one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels….But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then.” (page 10) How do you think Tom’s experiences as a soldier impact his decisions throughout the novel? What other outside elements, like the war, influences the narrative?

6. Janus Rock is named for Janus, the Roman God of doorways, “always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things.” (page 65) How does this knowledge impact your reading of The Light Between Oceans? Who is “torn between two ways of seeing things”?

7. Discuss the theme of opposites in The Light Between Oceans—darkness and light; safety and danger; land and water; truth and lies. How do these opposing forces shape your reading?

8. When Isabel brings Tom the map of Janus, complete with new names for all the locations on the island, Tom has an interesting reaction: “Janus did not belong to him: he belonged to it, like he’d heard the natives thought of the land. His job was just to take care of it.” (page 62) Discuss the difference in Tom’s point of view compared to Isabel’s. Does this difference in opinion foreshadow future events? How does it relate to their conflicting opinions of what to do with Lucy?

9. Did you sense that the silver rattle might turn out to play a pivotal role in the story?

10. Tom believes that rules are vital, that they are what keep a man from becoming a savage. Do you agree with him?

11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

12. Tom and Isabel’s deception impacts the lives of everyone around them. What did you think of the other characters’ reactions when they discover the truth about Lucy? Consider Hannah, Gwen, Septimus, Isabel’s parents, Ralph, Bluey.

13. Discuss Hannah’s reunion with Grace. Do you think she had fair expectations? Did you agree with Dr. Sumpton’s advice to Hannah about completely cutting Lucy off from Isabel and Tom?

14. M.L. Stedman makes it clear that there is no one perfect answer to the question of who should raise Grace/Lucy. She seems to undermine all notions of absolutes. It is clear that she will not dismiss all Germans as evil either. There is Hannah’s husband, ripe for persecution, and yet he is utterly innocent. Discuss the places in the novel where easy certainty turns out to be wrong.

15. Were you surprised by Isabel’s final decision to admit her role in the choice to keep Lucy—freeing Tom, but losing her child forever? Why or why not? What would you have done?

16. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? What emotions did you feel at the story’s end? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?

Suggested by Members

Waht would you have done differently and when?
Whose fault is the situation and why does that person deserve the msot blame?
by vvesper (see profile) 08/11/16

How would you handle the initial situation?
What ending would you like to have seen?
What would have happened if Lucy was returned asap?
by karenreed (see profile) 11/26/15

Why did the wife and husband disagree on the action? Why did the husband take blame?
by WCCREADERS (see profile) 11/10/15

Who is right and who is wrong?
by ebach (see profile) 06/29/15

What would you have done in that circumstance?
How could it have been handled differently so everyone could have a happier life?
How did others play into this decision?
by Lindajpen (see profile) 04/01/15

What would you do if you found a baby? Would you raise it as your own?
by iluv2nit4u (see profile) 01/28/15

How does isolation play a role in the decisions made by Tom and Isabel?
by dzillich (see profile) 01/06/15

Postpartum depression - how does it affect a woman's discernment of truth and morality?
by aliceray (see profile) 08/30/14

What would you do if living in a remote area and a child were to appear out of no where?
How do you deal with the loss of loved ones, especially at a young age?
Would you stand by your spouse no matter what?
by gibbsa95 (see profile) 07/07/14

Which character did you relate to and why?
by Nanci (see profile) 01/09/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Conversation with M.L. Stedman, Author of The Light Between Oceans

Interview by Tess Taylor

The opening sequence of your book captures the solitary beauty of living on a lighthouse and looking back to land. When I read the sequences of months passing and Tom, the lightkeeper, waiting for news, I thought of To The Lighthouse, a book where, paradoxically, we never meet the lightkeeper everyone keeps setting out to see. Lighthouses play a special place in the literary imagination. What drew you to this one?

When I write I just let a picture or a phrase float into awareness, and follow where it leads. For this story, a lighthouse was the very first thing that came to me. I closed my eyes, and there it was: solid and mysterious and the instigating image of a tale about which at that point I knew nothing at all. I was curious to find out more, so I kept writing. Of course the people I discovered at the lighthouse - Tom and Isabel - drew me into their lives, and the dilemma they face as they try to stay true to their love, yet true to themselves and their own sense of right and wrong.

To answer the other part of your question - yes, lighthouses seem to attract writers, perhaps because they automatically betoken the drama of journey and of risk. Wherever you see a lighthouse, there's something at stake, which is great territory for fiction.

As I worked on the book, I discovered that they appeal not only to writers, but to just about everyone. When you mention lighthouses, people generally get a gleam in their eye and lean in a little. They're an archetype that gives people freedom to imagine, and freedom to explore the human condition stripped down to its very essence. They represent the ultimate unfair yet heroic struggle: man's fight against the forces of nature, with its hidden hazards and infinite power. And they're a fulcrum: between safety and danger, light and dark, journey and stasis, communication and isolation, on which our imagination can - has to - pivot, because they're not just one or the other.

Some of your writing about lighthouses shows a great deal of research into their intricacies, like the way that they use small amounts of light to illuminate great distances; or the way that they shine over the edge of the earth without actually lighting up what's most directly below them. Did you do a great deal of technical research into lighthouses? While writing, did you go on special lighthouse expeditions?

Yes, and yes. I found the technical research so fascinating that it became addictive: lighthouses bring together so many aspects of science and technology, as well as maritime and social history. At their core, they're instruments of commerce - tools that made shipping sufficiently safe for voyages to be commercially viable. My research traversed everything from the history of glass-making to the physics of light to the early engineering of automation, and the development of communication methods from signaling with flags to Morse code.

I read some of the old catalogues and instruction books of Chance Brothers (lighthouse manufacturers) in the British Library. In the Australian National Archives, I trawled the lightkeepers' correspondence files as well as the meticulously kept logbooks from the era. It gave me shivers to think that the leather-bound volumes in my hands were written by men long-dead, who could never have imagined how touched by their words I would be almost a century later. And yes, I did go climbing up lighthouses in the south-west of Western Australia, near where the novel is set. Standing on the gallery of the lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin with the wind howling around me gave me a visceral sense of setting.

In fact, a great deal of your novel is about separations and long distances- people, who, for one reason or another have been wrenched from one another. I just asked about the technical work you did in researching all this. I also wonder: Did the way that lighthouses work seem to be a kind of central or touchstone metaphor for the way you depict human relationships?

Yes, I found it to be an incredibly rich metaphor for what the characters experience, especially Tom and Isabel. For a start, there's light and shadow, especially in the Jungian sense of the shadow side of human nature, and questions about what the characters suppress or disown. Importantly, lighthouses don't move. They are dependable, efficient and concerned with others' safety. I see Tom as the lighthouse and Isabel as the mercury that allows him to move whilst staying anchored. Looking at a lighthouse at night, we can only see a light - we can't tell what's going on inside it or even see the structure that supports it. We're oblivious to its inner nature. And the lighthouse cannot illuminate the space closest to it: its light is only for others. The one person Tom can't save is himself.

Like most lighthouses, the Janus light rotates, to give it a unique 'character' by going dark then returning a few seconds later. You can only identify it by looking at the whole pattern, not just the light or the dark in isolation. In life, too, it's important to take people as a whole, not just focus on flaws or moments of weakness. There's something, too, about having faith, in the moments it's obscured, that the light will come back, and Tom tries to keep faith that he will see Isabel again, even when she's lost in darkness in the latter part of the book.

I also see a parallel between the lantern lens and the characters' actions. The light is a tiny flame that is magnified and reaches far beyond what the lightkeeper can see. Similarly, Tom and Isabel's initial decision about the baby is the act of a moment that goes on to have consequences beyond their imagining. Sometimes, events turn our insignificant deeds into grave turning points in life.

This novel is set against the backdrop of the aftermath World War One, and understanding the losses that everyone touched by that war has suffered—which is to say everyone—is critical. The war touches each character differently, but they each reflect facets of the greater loss. When did you know that this story would be set at that time? Did the lighthouse and the war emerge together in your mind? How did you find yourself imagining them?

When the lighthouse first turned up, I knew that I was seeing something a long time ago, but I didn't know exactly when. Once I saw Tom, the lightkeeper, I knew that he had opted for life 'on the Lights' to get away from trauma, and that that trauma was the Great War. I only found out later, speaking to an archivist in the Australian Archives, that this happened frequently: many returned soldiers sought the solitude that life as a lightkeeper offered: they no longer knew how to function in civilization. The more I read the stories of Australian WWI soldiers, the more I understood the sort of man who volunteered for war, and the impact it had on him.

You write very movingly about the desire to parent and of an impossible set of choices faced by two sets of parents and the losses each sustains. Do you feel that your characters are served justice in the end?

I don't want to give much away about how the story ends, so I'll just say that the question of what constitutes justice is central to the book, particularly because following the rules and following the heart will each cause dreadful suffering. I hope I've done justice to my characters, in that I've tried to let readers see why each of them does what they do, and how the world looks to them. I think that to understand another's life is to find some measure of compassion for them.

Here at Barnes & Noble, we're always on the lookout for great emerging writers. Is there anyone you're reading these days who moves you? Would you give us a few recommendations for this summer's reading?

Perhaps any writer a reader hasn't encountered before qualifies as an 'emerging writer' for that reader. So thinking of books that move me and that I'd recommend, here's a random selection. Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson, is a beautiful study of late love and human frailty. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton's novella, is a masterpiece in miniature, which packs so much longing and anguish and guilt into such a small space. And of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is always a life-affirming read. On the short fiction side, a recent debut I loved was Hot Kitchen Snow, a collection by English writer Susannah Rickards, filled with poignant, beautifully written stories.

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Member Reviews

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by jowall123@gmail.com (see profile) 03/17/19

Made me cry.

 
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