When I was at Winter Institute a couple of weeks back, Wendy Sheanin from Simon & Schuster surreptitiously slipped me a copy of a manuscript called The Light Between Oceans by M. L Stedman. Since the last manuscript she sent was for Carol Anshaw's Carry the One, I moved it to the top of my TBR pile and I just finished it last night.
I'll start by saying one thing. M. L. Stedman is a helluva fine storyteller -- I was smitten with the novel by the end of the 6-page prologue. The book opens right after World War I in Australia and Tom is just self-aware enough to know he needs some time and space away from civilization after returning home from the front, so he applies for a job as a lighthouse keeper for the Commonwealth. He takes one remote post after another, finally settling on one that is 100 miles off the shore of southwestern Australia, at the point where the Indian and the Southern oceans meet. It's practically hardship duty, for he only gets one month's vacation after a three-year contract of isolation.
So when he meets and falls in love with Isabel, he knows it's not fair to ask her to join him on Janus Rock, but she will not be deterred. Their love is almost enough to sustain each other, but after suffering miscarriages on that lonely outpost, Isabel's sanity reaches a breaking point. Shortly after burying her stillborn child, a small dinghy gets swept by the oceans' currents to their rocky shore, bearing a man dead from exposure but protecting an infant who by some miracle still breathes. Instead of recording the incident in the official logbook, Isabel convinces Tom not to mention it and to keep the baby girl as their own child since the outside world is not yet aware of their immediate loss. With deep and grave misgivings, Tom acquiesces out of love and loyalty for his beloved wife, but it creates such a deep conflict in this man of honor and duty that he is never the same again.
The reader by now knows there is no possible way that this decision can end well for Tom, Isabel, or the baby they name Lucy, but that's all I can say for now without giving too many spoilers. I'll conclude with saying that the adults in Lucy's life give lip service to the question, "what would be best for Lucy?" but they all have their own selfish and morally-justified agendas in answering it. The problem here is that any compass of moral relativism lacks one True North, but even (or, perhaps, especially) non-parents like me will understand the choices the adults made in this riptide of a novel that sweeps characters and readers alike into cross-currents of sympathy and sorrow.
The book is slated for an August 2012 publication from Scribner and this novel of love, loss, selfishness, and sacrifice will find itself a wide and devoted readership, or else I miss my guess. Here are some of the passages that spoke to me for various reasons while I was reading:
"At the kitchen table, the flame of the oil lamp wavered occasionally. The wind continued its ancient vendetta against the windows, accompanied by the liquid thunder of waves. Tom tingled at the knowledge that he was the only one to hear any of it: the only living man for the better part of a hundred miles in any direction (37)."
"He begins to shape his routine. Regulations require that each Sunday he hoist the ensign and he does, first thing....He knows keepers who swear under their breath at the obligation, but Tom takes comfort from the orderliness of it. It is a luxury to do something that serves no practical purpose: the luxury of civilisation (38)."
"Just to be beside her had made him feel cleaner somehow, refreshed. Yet the sensation leads him back into the darkness, back into the galleries of wounded flesh and twisted limbs. To make sense of it -- that's the challenge. To bear witness to the death, without being broken by the weight of it. There's no reason he should still be alive, un-maimed. Suddenly Tom realizes he is crying. He weeps for the men snatched away to his left and right, when death had no appetite for him. He weeps for the men he killed (57)."
"The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember...History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That's how life goes on -- protected by the silence that anesthetizes shame (172)."
" 'Oh, but my treasure, it [forgiveness] is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.' He laughed, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow. 'I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too....No,' his voice became sober, 'we always have a choice. All of us.' (364)."