Let’s get one thing clear right at the beginning. I found this popular novel turgid and melodramatic. Towards the end of its interminable 10 hours on audiobook I started skipping instead of listening one more time to how unhappy the two mother/protagonists were, and to all the plainly silly plot devices keeping them and the child in close proximity to one another.
Still with me? A brave soldier (officer) returned from the Great War joins the lighthouse service and is assigned to a light on remote Janus Island off the southwest corner of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, hence the title. The officer, Tom Sherbourne, meets and marries a local girl, Isobel, and takes her to live on the island. Shortly after her third miscarriage, a dinghy is cast up on the island carrying a dead man and a live baby girl, a few weeks old. Rather than report this discovery Tom is persuaded by Isobel to keep the baby and for them to raise her as their own.
Spoilers. Only after two years does it become apparent that the baby is in fact that of another local woman, Hannah. And it is another two years after that before Hannah is made aware that her daughter is still alive. Tom is arrested. The baby, now old enough to have her own opinions, is returned to Hannah, who for some reason doesn’t go and live in Perth or Sydney or London, anywhere the child might adjust to her new situation in peace, but stays on instead in the small town where she and her daughter must inevitably run into Isobel. This drags on for hours seemingly while a case is made out against Tom, who has assumed all the blame, until at last some sort of resolution is achieved.
It seems to me that maybe 40 years ago it became fashionable (in Australia) to write about the First World War as an unmitigated horror – which it was – and to discuss soldiers returned from that war as damaged, traumatised. Two books stand out in that regard, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982) which rapidly became the standard ‘text’ on war in schools, and 1915 (1979) by Roger Macdonald. In retrospect I believe these books and the many that followed, including the Light Between the Oceans, were and are code for providing a path towards acceptance for soldiers returned from the illegal and unnecessary Vietnam War, and for understanding what we now call PTSD.
Stedman employs the familiar, indeed worn-out trope of the strong, silent returned soldier unable to speak the horrors he has seen, for Tom, in contrast with Isobel’s once free spirit descending further into despair with each successive miscarriage, to provide a background for their flawed decision making. Whether this essay on moral relativism needed to be set in a work of historical fiction is a moot point. I certainly don’t think Stedman contributes anything new to our understanding of 1920s Western Australia, or to take a wider view, to our understanding of post WWI Australia.
And if you as readers want to know more about children separated from their mothers then maybe you could try Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review), or one of the many other Indigenous accounts of the Stolen Generations. Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their homes and put into institutions and then into service, and to get worked up about one imaginary white child is both an indulgence and insulting. And no, I haven’t forgotten about all the children removed from teenage single mothers right up to the 1960s.
If you’re interested in the setting, there is no Janus Island and indeed, as far as I know, no islands at all 100 miles (160 km) off the southwest coast. The coastal township of the story, Port Partageuse appears to be a composite of the town of Augusta, nearby Cape Leeuwin, which does have a lighthouse (#4 on map), and Point D’Entrecasteaux which is a bit further south.
The Light Between the Oceans has its good points. The characterisations, particularly of Tom and Isobel, are excellent and if the author had decided they should have kept the child, I would have sympathised, instead of running out of patience with them is I eventually did. The descriptions of the rugged island and later of the West Australian bush are also excellent. This is Stedman’s first novel and I would not be surprised to learn it was the product of a creative writing degree – passages of good descriptive writing around an immature plot.
M.L. Stedman, The Light Between the Oceans, Random House, Melbourne, 2012. Audio version: AudioGo, 2012, read by Noah Taylor (10 hrs 20 min)