M.L. Stedman, Australian by birth, was working as an attorney in London when, in 1997, she decided to try her hand at fiction writing and secured for herself a writing tutor. Fifteen years and many short stories later, we have her debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, and the world is that much better for it.
I just finished it yesterday, tearing through the last hundred or so pages in about a day and a half. I have two comments from the top.
First, I’m amazed that it’s only Stedman’s first book, and that she’s so relatively new to the fiction game, so confident and smooth is the writing, so breezy the read, yet so engrossing and riveting and heartfelt all at once.
Second, I find it almost difficult to fathom that this novel was written as recently as 2012; it feels like such a polished, old-fashioned masterpiece, like something by Maugham, Dickens, or one of the Brontes, albeit about historical subject matter that transpired later. Literally, if someone conducted an elaborate social experiment and produced a couple hundred copies of The Light Between Oceans fashioned with phony covers proclaiming it as having been written by some relatively unknown author from the 1930s or 1940s, folks would, I imagine, find it an utterly beguiling and brilliant read and find it utterly believable that it was published in 1934 or whatever. And perhaps this fact—the universal beauty and simplicity of its central complicated moral conundrum—underlies some of its fabulous success; it has resonated with readers all over the globe, it’s now been translated into multiple dozens of languages, and it’s recently been made into a big Hollywood film starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender.
The story, remarkably simple in its structure and character base, primarily concerns only two folks: the feisty and irresistible Isabel Graysmark and the man she marries, the war-deadened and kind-hearted Tom Sherbourne, in the earliest days of their marriage as they make a life for themselves on Janus Rock, an island about a hundred miles off the western coast of Australia where they are the only two inhabitants, and where Tom’s charge is to maintain and keep lit the lighthouse there. A couple of miscarriages and a stillbirth later, a life-altering event occurs: they hear a distant cry, and discover a small dinghy that has drifted ashore, and find aboard it a dead man and a tiny, swaddled baby, a little girl, not but a few weeks old, healthy and alive. And Isabel, reeling and bereft in the wake of the recent stillbirth, immediately concocts a plan, one which, as you can imagine, will come to have all manner of enormous consequences.
I won’t describe the plot any further than that, but as for the writing, suffice it to say that there’s this wonderfully calm and wise voice that guides us through the book, and though it’s a slow, methodical, wispy, and lonely plot, Stedman moves us at a considerable clip. I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s a marvelous book.