I’ve been finding myself reading quite a few books lately that are set in or around the periods of the World Wars. What they have all had in common, is a great focus on how the war changed the people who took part in them. But what they didn’t really focus on, was the difficulty these people – particularly the men – had interacting with those who were virtually untouched by the war once they were home. What could these men say to people who had not seen any of the horrors they had seen? How could they be expected to carry on with their everyday lives? This is especially true of the men who returned to Australia from the war. Being so far removed from the action, the most that the residents of Australia saw of the war were the men who came home with limbs missing, physical scarring and mental scarring.
In The Light Between Oceans we are allowed into the life of a man returned from the First World War. Hailed as a hero, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia, to a country full of people who don’t really understand what it was like in Europe. He doesn’t view himself as a hero and is plagued by memories of the war – of death. The only peace he can find is as a lighthouse keeper and he is eventually posted at one of the most remote lighthouses there is, on Janus Rock off the coast of Western Australia. It is a life spent in solitude on a small island surrounded by the wild seas, with only the occasional trip to the closest settlement by boat, Point Partageuse. It is there he meets Isabel, young and carefree and aside from the deaths of her brothers in the war, virtually ignorant of the atrocities and hardships experienced in Europe. They are eventually married and Isabel joins Tom on Janus Rock where the population is now two. Life carries on, Tom and Isabel have their ups and downs but for the most part, little happens on the island and they have next to no knowledge of what happens across the ocean in the rest of the civilised world. But their quiet lives are changed the day a boat washes up on the island, bearing a dead man and a crying baby. Tom and Isabel have reached a turning point in their lives and the consequences of the decision they make on this day are not apparent until many years later, when they finally find out the true history of the baby they found on the beach.
Stedman does a fantastic job of getting into the mind of a man returned from war. The location of the novel may be fictitious, but the mental state of the man is not. Many men came home virtually unscathed of mind and body, but for every one who managed to get on with their lives, there were those that just could not get through a day without suffering through what they had experienced on the battlefield. For me, Tom Sherbourne was in the middle of these two extremes. He managed to function every day and get on with the job, but he still remembers friends lost and is unable to spend too much time around people that weren’t there. I think he feels the sense of pity from many and the idea that he is a hero appears almost repellant to him – a hero does not kill people and a hero would be able to save his friends. The fact that he takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on an island that is basically cut off from the rest of the world, speaks volumes about the sense of isolation he feels from the people around him. I suspect that this feeling was applicable for many of the men who were in the war. I think that it would be hard to feel part of a community after being changed so much by experiences that were beyond the comprehension of many others. I didn’t particularly like the character of Isabel very much. She grows rapidly from girl to woman in this book and experiences hardship which would change any woman, but she has little sense of right from wrong and really brings to life the phrase “beware a woman scorned”. Her treatment of her husband in the latter stages of the book is what really turned me against her. I sympathise with what she goes through, but I can’t understand the mentality of her actions towards Tom. It is hard to care for a character who can end up being so cruel.
All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I wouldn’t say that it’s better than all the other books I have read that are based around the same time period, but it certainly focuses a little more on the return to society of many of these men. It’s all well and good to write about the war and tell of the hardships faced in the trenches, but it is enlightening and refreshing to read about what life was like after the war. For many, that’s when the battle really began. But this book is also about right and wrong and the line which can often be blurred between the two. It is a book about the decisions we make and the consequences they have. The smallest action have have the biggest consequences and often small decisions have a bigger role to play in the grand scheme of things. It is a book that tells us to choose our actions carefully.
RATING - 8 out of 10. An enjoyable debut novel from the author and I hope that her future novels are just as good.
WHO SHOULD READ IT - If you enjoy historical fiction by Fiona McIntosh (The Lavender Keeper, The French Promise) and Kate Morton (The Shifting Fog, The Secret Keeper), then you will definitely enjoy this one.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE - I can’t say that I found any of the characters particularly loveable, but I did find the character of Tom Sherbourne the most complex and interesting. I think that the lack of characters (due to the isolated setting) has worked in the authors favour, as she has been able to just focus and build on the two mains, making them as realistic as possible.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it?