Tuesday, 24 January 2012

REVIEW The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Perhaps when it comes to it, no-one is just the worst thing they ever did.

The Light Between Oceans is not a mystery novel as Shade Point's normal fare understands it; nor is it a ghost story. And yet, it has a great heart of mystery, and every single page feels haunted one way or another. Every character, it seems, lives in a world of ghosts every waking day. This combination builds a novel that has an almost otherworldy sense of loss and longing about it, drifting across every action and every utterance.

It is Australia, 1926. Tom and Isabel Sherborne live a seemingly blissful life running the isolated Janus lighthouse. Their idyll is destroyed when they are visited by a series of personal tragedies, and when a dinghy washes on the rocks containing a stranger's corpse and a tiny baby, miraculously still alive, they make a fateful decision.

This decision is placed right up front in a novel that then weaves the reader back and forth through different times and inhabits the memories of multiple connected characters. Stedman places Tom and Isabel's terrible moment of choice right up front and straight away, maybe, to challenge the reader to the same dilemma without giving them any time to get to know the people, the lie of the land; just to be in there at the moment of extreme decision. In this sense, The Light Between Oceans shares something with the mystery genre - from the very first pages a fierce tension is ground for all else to follow. The predicament of Tom and Isabel is such a stunning premise, I feel, that it is impossible not to be hooked.

Tom Sherborne has survived the horrors of the Great War trenches, and it is obvious early on, as he seeks out the solitude of Janus, that he only barely manages daily to escape "the darkness, back into the galleries of wounded flesh and twisted limbs". A new life with Isabel, to Tom, seems inexplicable, unbelievable and undeserved, and as such their relationship is always heightened, fevered almost, in a way that feeds the anxiety in the novel. Right from the beginning we know that Tom has reservations about their actions, that he knows what he is doing is wrong, but wounded as he is, so deeply in love as he is, he is unable to take a different path.

The isolation of the lighthouse drives the progress of the plot, with the great light beaming miles and miles out to sea, but the island below, and Tom and Isabel, seemingly shielded in darkness. That they can not remain in darkness forever, creates the creeping, sweating tension that drives the story. Unwitting accomplice, the reader has no choice but to keep with them. Like the best mystery stories, the great tension of choice, of right and wrong, good and bad, is at the core of this novel. The reader is constantly adjusting position, constantly searching their own sense of the thing to do, their own sliding scale for 'good people who do bad things'.

Tom may have been "over there" but the whole of the town of Partageuse, nearest landfall to Janus, has also been wounded by the war in some way - Isabel's family included. Indeed, an overwhelming sense of the missing pervades the novel, as if at the heart of it all is a great collective grief that drives the events - often when they might seem otherwise melodramatic. The ghosts of the missing and dead whisper all throughout the story, and nearly every character has this deep personal connection to the war, or the war has created other connections for them. Those who don't have this association, in the end, are the ones who act with the least humanity as the story unfolds. Mostly this desperate sadness is about parents and their children, about losing and re-finding, maybe losing again. Only the biggest literary cynic of a parent, I suspect, will be able to read the novel and remain unmoved. In moments, the book is heart breakingly sad.

The lighthouse, Janus Rock, is beautifully created. The gleaming light and its shining casing is wonderfully evoked as Tom tends to its every need and "the glass gleams, the brass shines, and the light rotates on its bath of mercury as smoothly as a skua gliding on the currents of air". The surrounding landscape with its shipwreck cemetery and hidden inlets and pools is strikingly observed. The way Stedman creates Partageuse, with its steady murmur of different voices, memories and quick snapshots of characters passing the narrative by, in some ways reminded me a bit of Stephen King. Maybe not a real influence, perhaps, but the way this small town steps into the imagination without show or great digression, is similar to King, who is the master of it, I feel.

The sense of isolation, of otherness, both on the Rock itself and in the emotional casting out in the town, is superbly created. Although it does not share its all-pervading darkness, there is something in this novel, perhaps the setting mostly, that reminded me of that emotional bludgeoning Shade Point endured at the hands of Henning Mankell's Depths last year. It also reminds me a little of The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, which had a similarly haunted sense about it - a kind of pulse of foreboding running through the chapters like the beam of the Janus Rock light. Curiously, I found myself remembering the brilliant Two Prisoners by Lajos Zilahy, a love story dragged up from the very distant reading past. Something, I think, of the headlong trajectory of love was similar between the two books. Some novels just stick, I suppose.

It will be interesting to see where this novel goes when it comes out. It could quite easily become one of the books of the year - it has that sort of quality to it, where it transcends genre and creates an impetus all of its own towards becoming a bestseller. I'm thinking here of a kind of Time Traveler's Wife sort of 'happening'. Apparently, quite a few people thought the same, as the manuscript was the subject of a nine way bidding war between publishers. That has to say something - for a debut novel, too. We'll have to wait and see.

Some novels just stay with you, as I say, and do so for any number of reasons. Perhaps they are read at a particular time in one's life, or they are a gift from a particular person. Often, I think, they stay with us because of the imaginative depth of the premise, because of the dilemma this places the characters in, and therefore the reader too. They can stay with us because they create such a uniqueness of setting in time and place, that is then impossible to find again, or re-create. For me, these last two reasons apply particularly to The Light Between Oceans.