The Light Between Oceans

M. L. Stedman

Simon and Schuster 

He traced the constellations as they slid their way across the roof of the world from dusk to dawn. The precision of it, the quiet orderliness of the stars, gave him a sense of freedom. There was nothing he was going through that the stars had not seen before, somewhere, some time on this earth. Given enough time, their memory would close over his life like a healing wound. All would be forgotten, all suffering erased.

                 from  The Light Between Oceans


On love, and the guilt of living with its consequences

Who among us lives without guilt? Probably only the very young and the morally insensitive. Yet some people just seem made for guilt. It fits them like a custom tailored hair shirt.

Tom Sherbourne is a decent, thoughtful and principled man who feels his guilt—for having betrayed his mother when he was a small boy, for what he had to do in the Great War, and perhaps most, for returning unscathed when so many came back badly maimed, or didn’t return at all. Perhaps it is the most decent among us who feel their guilt the sharpest.

Tom becomes a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, perched between the Indian Ocean and the Great Southern Ocean, and a half day’s journey from the West Australian coast. In time, he meets and marries Isabel, a spirited, young woman, and they share an idyllic life together, in time and tune with the tides.

However, after two miscarriages and the still-birth of her baby boy, Isabel falls into a deep depression. Then something miraculous happens: a boat bumps up against the rock, carrying a dead man and a squalling baby girl. Tom wants to report the occurrence, but Isabel convinces him that the infant is theirs, a gift from God, to replace their dead son.

Out of his love for Isabel and concern for the infant—How could they turn her over to the authorities to be placed in an orphanage?—Tom buries the man, sets the boat once more adrift, and they pretend the baby is their own, naming her Lucy (from the Latin word for “light.”)

The joy the three find together continues until several years later when Lucy is a toddler. Visiting the mainland on a vacation, they learn the story of the boat, and of the mother, still devastated by the disappearance of her baby daughter.

Tom wrestles with the moral dilemma: What is best for Lucy? What is best for Isabel? And what about the grieving mother who has held on to a fragile hope that her child still lives? For Isabel, the answer is clear: Lucy is now their daughter.

A number of reviewers have described this story as “heartbreaking,” “heartrending,” and “heart-wrenching.” What’s left for me? They took all the best words. [Hint: Don’t look for a happy ending.]

The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully written, poignant story of the choices good people make for good reasons, and the guilt they must live with when facing the consequences of those choices.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.