Welcome to this month’s book club discussion.
This month we are discussing The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, the debut novel of an Australian lawyer (now writer) who now lives in London.
The Light Between Oceans has been an international bestseller, winning numerous awards (source). With the movie rights having been sold too, the movie will hopefully be coming to your local cinema in the not too distant future.
What did you think of it? Had you heard much about it before you read it?
This book was highly recommended to me, but nothing in particular was said about it, other than a vague mention that it was a sad book, beautifully written. So when I picked it up over my summer holiday to read it, I really had no idea what it was about. It took me a little bit of persistence to get going as I found the initial pace slow and the historical setting quite foreign. I might have studied Australian history and politics at Uni but I knew jack about life as a lighthouse keeper in Western Australia in between the World Wars. But I was intrigued.
Friends who read this were immediately hooked. How did you find it? It was only once I hit the last third of the book, that I was completely hooked. I think this is because I couldn’t predict where the story would end (I always like to play the game “predict the ending”). I didn’t know what I thought was the “right” ending as well.
The premise of this book was a little far fetched to me but the moral conundrum posed was an effective way to explore the characters. The setting of the book was critical to the story too – I can’t imagine how a couple would come to care for a baby in total isolation, not knowing the origins of the child in any other way. It was the arrival of the baby Lucy-Grace, almost a miracle to Isabel, that was the critical event in the book.
When I reflected afterwards about why I was so sympathetic towards Tom and Isabel (when really, they deprived a child from her mother from birth to 3 years), I think there were two reasons. Firstly, because as readers, we knew the heartbreak and trauma Isabel and Tom had suffered including the stillbirth of their son and previous miscarriages just months before Lucy-Grace’s arrival.
Secondly, I think that because, as readers, we weren’t introduced to Hannah until much later in the book, the attachment we had as readers to Isabel and Lucy was hard to break as well. Even though I suspect many of us had serious reservations about Isabel, it was hard to deny the strength of the bond between her and Lucy-Grace and their separation (and subsequent contact) was absolutely heart wrenching.
I was relieved but like many of you no doubt, fearful of what would unfold once Tom was charged by the Police. What did you think should happen? Did you think that the events played out in a believable fashion? Were you satisfied with the ending? Were you happy when Hannah went to Isabel with the intention of handing over Lucy-Grace? I must say I was. What did you think when she then changed her mind, upon Isabel’s admission? Were you disappointed? I was. I was somewhat confounded by my response given I cannot imagine giving up my own child.
It was somewhat reassuring to me, when Lucy-Grace returned to Tom at the end of the book and it seemed clear that it had been the right decision for her to remain with Hannah. It was almost as if it was proof that blood could still be a powerful bond despite the interruption of that bond at the very beginning. I don’t know if psychologists and family therapists would find this believable but it was reassuring to me.
Isabel’s character was an interesting one. I couldn’t get a handle on her until late in the book by which stage I was increasingly appalled by her actions. I felt genuine empathy for Isabel at the start and when they took Lucy in after the devastating still birth of their son. I cannot imagine the horror of this, which was exacerbated by her isolation and the cumulative devastation of previous miscarriages.
However, her total refusal to acknowledge or even empathise with Hannah and her inability to have any insight frustrated me. I felt that her desire to be a mother was strong enough that she should know, or have some idea how Hannah may have felt. I know this must have been a coping mechanism on some level but I was appalled by her selfishness and the consequences of her actions on Tom. They could have led to his death when she was the instigator and propagator of the lie.
What did you make of Isabel? Am I being too harsh?
Tom’s character was so well drawn and so consistent throughout the book. You could almost predict his next decision or response, not in a boring predictable way, but because the reader understood his principles and his approach to life.
I think Tom’s frosty relationship with and subsequent estrangement from his father and brother was telling – his father basically took his mother away from him. Tom was clearly profoundly affected by his mother’s departure and it was heartbreaking when he tracked down her address as an adult, only to find she had recently died. His longing for his own mother was palpable and I think this is what was at the pit of his stomach and explained his deep unease at keeping Lucy-Grace, once they became aware of Hannah’s existence.
I think this is also why he made contact with Hannah and that he wanted the lie to be uncovered.
Ironically, his appreciation of the mother-child bond ultimately led to the breaking up of his wife’s bond with “her” child.
Why did you think Tom made the decisions he did? Did you agree with him?
What did you think of his decision to take the heat and to let Isabel off the hook?
I found the prospect of Tom languishing in jail for Isabel’s crimes difficult to stomach. I felt his love for her was missplaced and I was relieved when she finally came to his aid late in the piece.
I felt terrible for Hannah. She could not win and through no fault of her own. I didn’t know what she should do when Lucy returned to her grief stricken. It was an impossible situation. I supported her decision to return Lucy to Isabel and was then sad when she didn’t follow through. I have subsequently thought this was an odd response given I would never dream of giving up any of my own children. It was just the force and intensity of the bond between Lucy and Isabel was so great; it seemed as though it would harm Lucy to be forced to stay with Hannah.
What did you think of Hannah?
Lucy-Grace’s subsequent visit to Tom after Isabel’s death was interesting to me insofar as she articulated her new found understanding of both Isabel and Hannah’s situations, following the birth of her own child. I found their conversation fascinating.
What did you make of it? Do you think it was a realistic ending that Lucy-Grace seemed to have turned out ok despite the trauma she suffered in being separated from Tom and Isabel as a preschooler?
Janus Island was obviously not a person, but was a central character in the book. What happened, could only have happened given the isolation of Janus Island.
I loved reading about life on Janus Island and the beauty and isolation of the place. It seemed like an almost idyllic place to raise a child. I could not imagine living (or raising children) in such a place but thought Tom’s experience in the war along with his introverted, solitary nature explained his love of the place.
I couldn’t really understand Isabel’s desire to live there and to pursue Tom knowing where he lived and his vocation but perhaps this was partly explained by a desire to remove herself from the oppressiveness of her parents’ grief following the deaths of both of her brothers in the war.
My Favourite Line/Scene
My favourite line was from Tom after he was charged by the Police: “Putting down the burden of the lie has meant giving up the freedom of the dream.” I was struck by this and found it poignant. Confession is a relief, but we are all left with the reality of the consequences of our decisions.
In a nutshell
I think this book raised some interesting questions about the power of attachment, the lengths to which some people are prepared to go to become parents, the tension between what is right for a child and her parent and how this might change over time.
I thought it was well written and I found the stories of the aftermath of the war both interesting and sad. It gave a fascinating snapshot of life in Australia between the wars and the grief and racism (which ultimately led to Lucy-Grace’s father’s death) of that time.
It was a book that will stay with me and that I would happily recommend, with a vague mention of it being a sad book.
If you’d like to read more, I found this interview with the author interesting (and a bit mysterious). So many questions.
What did you think of the book? Did you enjoy it? Would you recommend it to someone else?
I’ve asked a few questions during this post too and I’d love to hear your thoughts about any/all of them.