“The Light Between Oceans” which takes place in the years following World War I, is a tear-jerker, but a good one. The novel is a story of Tom Sherbourne and his wife, Isabel, who live on Janus Rock, an island off the southwest coast of Australia, between the Indian Ocean and the Great Southern Ocean. Tom is a lighthouse keeper, and he and Isabel are childless. Then one day they find a baby along with a dead man in a shipwrecked dinghy and take the infant into their home as their daughter.
Tom welcomes the isolation of being a “keeper” after having served four years on the Western Front in World War I. Life on Janus Rock, which has nothing but the lighthouse, is not easy. A supply boat comes four times a year and the keeper gets one month’s leave after three years and other limited breaks from the job.
Tom met Isabel at a dinner party in the coastal town of Partageuse while waiting to start his job. They begin writing letters to each other that are exchanged every three months when the supply boat comes. Tom returns to Partageuse at the end of six months for a two-week leave. He spends every day with Isabel. She proposes to Tom, who thinks life on Janus Rock will be too hard for her. Tom goes back to Janus for another six months but Isabel is determined to marry Tom and eventually wins him over.
Isabel loves life on the island with Tom. She soon becomes pregnant, but miscarries. She has another miscarriage and then a stillborn child, and she is devastated. Shortly after losing the third baby, she hears a baby’s cry near the water’s edge. Isabel convinces Tom not to send a signal to let someone know that they found the baby and the dead man in the boat. Isabel fears that the child will be shipped off to an orphanage. Since Isabel had recently been pregnant, they could pass the baby off as their own. Tom is hesitant; a lighthouse keeper’s records are meticulous and sacred. Not reporting the incident violates that trust. But Isabel is so happy after years of being childless, so Tom does not report what happened and buries the man’s body. They name the baby Lucy.
Tom gets leave at Christmas of 1927 and he, Isabel and their now 2-year-old daughter go to Isabel’s parents’ home. There, they realize that the dead man in the boat was Franz, the husband of Hannah Roennfeldt, who lives in Partageuse. This, of course, means that Lucy is actually Grace Roennfeldt, whose mother has been grieving since losing her husband and her infant daughter. Hannah had married a German, who, because of lingering bad blood over World War I, was not accepted by many of the townspeople. To escape an angry mob, he took their baby into a boat and subsequently was killed in the storm, though the baby lived.
Tom and Isabel must decide whether to let Hannah know that her daughter is alive. Tom tries to ease Hannah’s grief by sending her an anonymous note that says, “Don’t fret for her. The baby is safe. Loved and well cared for, and always will be. Your husband is at peace in God’s hands. I hope this brings you comfort.” Now Hannah has a glimmer of hope that her daughter is alive, while the guilt Tom and Isabel feel in knowing the baby they rescued and made their own is someone else’s child is tearing them apart. Dealing with that is just one of the challenges they face.
M.L. Stedman was born and lives in Australia. This is her first novel.