After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, who keeps meticulous records and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel insists the baby is a “gift from God,” and against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.
“Elegantly rendered…heart-wrenching…beautifully drawn” (USA TODAY), The Light Between Oceans is a gorgeous debut novel, not soon to be forgotten.
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Read an Excerpt
Light Between Oceans
16th December 1918
Yes, I realize that,” Tom Sherbourne said. He was sitting in a spartan room, barely cooler than the sultry day outside. The Sydney summer rain pelted the window, and sent the people on the pavement scurrying for shelter.
“I mean very tough.” The man across the desk leaned forward for emphasis. “It’s no picnic. Not that Byron Bay’s the worst posting on the Lights, but I want to make sure you know what you’re in for.” He tamped down the tobacco with his thumb and lit his pipe. Tom’s letter of application had told the same story as many a fellow’s around that time: born 28 September 1893; war spent in the Army; experience with the International Code and Morse; physically fit and well; honorable discharge. The rules stipulated that preference should be given to ex-servicemen.
“It can’t—” Tom stopped, and began again. “All due respect, Mr. Coughlan, it’s not likely to be tougher than the Western Front.”
The man looked again at the details on the discharge papers, then at Tom, searching for something in his eyes, in his face. “No, son. You’re probably right on that score.” He rattled off some rules: “You pay your own passage to every posting. You’re relief, so you don’t get holidays. Permanent staff get a month’s leave at the end of each three-year contract.” He took up his fat pen and signed the form in front of him. As he rolled the stamp back and forth across the inkpad he said, “Welcome”—he thumped it down in three places on the paper—“to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service.” On the form, “16th December 1918” glistened in wet ink.
The six months’ relief posting at Byron Bay, up on the New South Wales coast, with two other keepers and their families, taught Tom the basics of life on the Lights. He followed that with a stint down on Maatsuyker, the wild island south of Tasmania where it rained most days of the year and the chickens blew into the sea during storms.
On the Lights, Tom Sherbourne has plenty of time to think about the war. About the faces, the voices of the blokes who had stood beside him, who saved his life one way or another; the ones whose dying words he heard, and those whose muttered jumbles he couldn’t make out, but who he nodded to anyway.
Tom isn’t one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels. Nor were his lungs turned to glue or his brains to stodge by the gas. But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward.
He tries not to dwell on it: he’s seen plenty of men turned worse than useless that way. So he gets on with life around the edges of this thing he’s got no name for. When he dreams about those years, the Tom who is experiencing them, the Tom who is there with blood on his hands, is a boy of eight or so. It’s this small boy who’s up against blokes with guns and bayonets, and he’s worried because his school socks have slipped down and he can’t hitch them up because he’ll have to drop his gun to do it, and he’s barely big enough even to hold that. And he can’t find his mother anywhere.
Then he wakes and he’s in a place where there’s just wind and waves and light, and the intricate machinery that keeps the flame burning and the lantern turning. Always turning, always looking over its shoulder.
If he can only get far enough away—from people, from memory—time will do its job.
Thousands of miles away on the west coast, Janus Rock was the furthest place on the continent from Tom’s childhood home in Sydney. But Janus Light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five-second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. When, in June 1920, he got news of an urgent vacancy going on Janus, it was as though the light there were calling to him.
Teetering on the edge of the continental shelf, Janus was not a popular posting. Though its Grade One hardship rating meant a slightly higher salary, the old hands said it wasn’t worth the money, which was meager all the same. The keeper Tom replaced on Janus was Trimble Docherty, who had caused a stir by reporting that his wife was signaling to passing ships by stringing up messages in the colored flags of the International Code. This was unsatisfactory to the authorities for two reasons: first, because the Deputy Director of Lighthouses had some years previously forbidden signaling by flags on Janus, as vessels put themselves at risk by sailing close enough to decipher them; and secondly, because the wife in question was recently deceased.
Considerable correspondence on the subject was generated in triplicate between Fremantle and Melbourne, with the Deputy Director in Fremantle putting the case for Docherty and his years of excellent service, to a Head Office concerned strictly with efficiency and cost and obeying the rules. A compromise was reached by which a temporary keeper would be engaged while Docherty was given six months’ medical leave.
“We wouldn’t normally send a single man to Janus—it’s pretty remote and a wife and family can be a great practical help, not just a comfort,” the District Officer had said to Tom. “But seeing it’s only temporary... You’ll leave for Partageuse in two days,” he said, and signed him up for six months.
There wasn’t much to organize. No one to farewell. Two days later, Tom walked up the gangplank of the boat, armed with a kit bag and not much else. The SS Prometheus worked its way along the southern shores of Australia, stopping at various ports on its run between Sydney and Perth. The few cabins reserved for first-class passengers were on the upper deck, toward the bow. In third class, Tom shared a cabin with an elderly sailor. “Been making this trip for fifty years—they wouldn’t have the cheek to ask me to pay. Bad luck, you know,” the man had said cheerfully, then returned his attention to the large bottle of over-proof rum that kept him occupied. To escape the alcohol fumes, Tom took to walking the deck during the day. Of an evening there’d usually be a card game belowdecks.
You could still tell at a glance who’d been over there and who’d sat the war out at home. You could smell it on a man. Each tended to keep to his own kind. Being in the bowels of the vessel brought back memories of the troopships that took them first to the Middle East, and later to France. Within moments of arriving on board, they’d deduced, almost by an animal sense, who was an officer, who was lower ranks; where they’d been.
Just like on the troopships, the focus was on finding a bit of sport to liven up the journey. The game settled on was familiar enough: first one to score a souvenir off a first-class passenger was the winner. Not just any souvenir, though. The designated article was a pair of ladies’ drawers. “Prize money’s doubled if she’s wearing them at the time.”
The ringleader, a man by the name of McGowan, with a mustache, and fingers yellowed from his Woodbines, said he’d been chatting to one of the stewards about the passenger list: the choice was limited. There were ten cabins in all. A lawyer and his wife—best give them a wide berth; some elderly couples, a pair of old spinsters (promising), but best of all, some toff’s daughter traveling on her own.
“I reckon we can climb up the side and in through her window,” he announced. “Who’s with me?”
The danger of the enterprise didn’t surprise Tom. He’d heard dozens of such tales since he got back. Men who’d taken to risking their lives on a whim—treating the boom gates at level crossings as a gallop jump; swimming into rips to see if they could get out. So many men who had dodged death over there now seemed addicted to its lure. Still, this lot were free agents now. Probably just full of talk.
The following night, when the nightmares were worse than usual, Tom decided to escape them by walking the decks. It was two a.m. He was free to wander wherever he wanted at that hour, so he paced methodically, watching the moonlight leave its wake on the water. He climbed to the upper deck, gripping the stair rail to counter the gentle rolling, and stood a moment at the top, taking in the freshness of the breeze and the steadiness of the stars that showered the night.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a glimmer come on in one of the cabins. Even first-class passengers had trouble sleeping sometimes, he mused. Then, some sixth sense awoke in him—that familiar, indefinable instinct for trouble. He moved silently toward the cabin, and looked in through the window.
In the dim light, he saw a woman flat against the wall, pinned there even though the man before her wasn’t touching her. He was an inch away from her face, with a leer Tom had seen too often. He recognized the man from belowdecks, and remembered the prize. Bloody idiots. He tried the door, and it opened.
“Leave her alone,” he said as he stepped into the cabin. He spoke calmly, but left no room for debate.
The man spun around to see who it was, and grinned when he recognized Tom. “Christ! Thought you were a steward! You can give me a hand, I was just—”
“I said leave her alone! Clear out. Now.”
“But I haven’t finished. I was just going to make her day.” He reeked of drink and stale tobacco.
Tom put a hand on his shoulder, with a grip so hard that the man cried out. He was a good six inches shorter than Tom, but tried to take a swing at him all the same. Tom seized his wrist and twisted it. “Name and rank!”
“McKenzie. Private. 3277.” The unrequested serial number followed like a reflex.
“Private, you’ll apologize to this young lady and you’ll get back to your bunk and you won’t show your face on deck until we berth, you understand me?”
“Yes, sir!” He turned to the woman. “Beg your pardon, Miss. Didn’t mean any harm.”
Still terrified, the woman gave the slightest nod.
“Now, out!” Tom said, and the man, deflated by sudden sobriety, shuffled from the cabin.
“You all right?” Tom asked the woman.
“I—I think so.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“He didn’t...”—she was saying it to herself as much as to him—“he didn’t actually touch me.”
He took in the woman’s face—her gray eyes seemed calmer now. Her dark hair was loose, in waves down to her arms, and her fists still gathered her nightgown to her neck. Tom reached for her dressing gown from a hook on the wall and draped it over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Must have got an awful fright. I’m afraid some of us aren’t used to civilized company these days.”
She didn’t speak.
“You won’t get any more trouble from him.” He righted a chair that had been overturned in the encounter. “Up to you whether you report him, Miss. I’d say he’s not the full quid now.”
Her eyes asked a question.
“Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.” He turned to go, but put his head back through the doorway. “You’ve got every right to have him up on charges if you want. But I reckon he’s probably got enough troubles. Like I said—up to you,” and he disappeared through the door.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Light Between Oceans includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The year is 1926. After four harrowing years on the Western Front, young Tom Sherbourne takes up the post of lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock. In the small coastal town on his way to Janus, Tom meets the headstrong, vibrant Isabel. They fall in love, and on his first shore leave they marry, then return to Janus together—both eager to begin their life, cocooned from the rest of the world with just each other, the gulls, and the stars for company. Years later, after two miscarriages and one still birth, Isabel’s grief is all consuming. But one fateful, April morning she hears the sound of cries carried in on the wind: a small boat has washed ashore, its occupants a dead man and a squalling baby girl. Tom wants to report the boat immediately, but Isabel resists, pleading with him to put it off for just one day. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim the girl as their own and name her Lucy—a devastating, resounding choice that forever changes two worlds.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the novel’s title, The Light Between Oceans. Why do you think the author selected this title? What do you visualize when you hear or read The Light Between Oceans?
2. The novel is rich with detailed descriptions of the ocean, the sky, and the wild landscape of Janus Rock. Is there a particular passage or scene that stood out to you? What role does the natural world play in Tom and Isabel’s life?
3. “The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm—the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” (page 110) Discuss the impact of living in seclusion on both Tom and Isabel. Why do you think each of them is drawn to live on Janus Rock? Do you think, in the moments when we are unobserved, we are different people?
4. When Isabel tries to get Tom to open up about his family, he responds: “I’ll tell you if you really want. It’s just I’d rather not. Sometimes it’s good to leave the past in the past.”(pages 44-45) Do you think it is possible to leave the past in the past? What do you think of Tom’s opinion that it’s a “pity” that we’re a product of our family’s past? What does this tell you about his character? Discuss the impact of family history on Tom, Isabel, Hannah, and Frank.
5. Tom is haunted by what he witnessed—and what he did—during his enlistment in World War I. The narrator reflects that he’s not “one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels….But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then.” (page 10) How do you think Tom’s experiences as a soldier impact his decisions throughout the novel? What other outside elements, like the war, influences the narrative?
6. Janus Rock is named for Janus, the Roman God of doorways, “always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things.” (page 65) How does this knowledge impact your reading of The Light Between Oceans? Who is “torn between two ways of seeing things”?
7. Discuss the theme of opposites in The Light Between Oceans—darkness and light; safety and danger; land and water; truth and lies. How do these opposing forces shape your reading?
8. When Isabel brings Tom the map of Janus, complete with new names for all the locations on the island, Tom has an interesting reaction: “Janus did not belong to him: he belonged to it, like he’d heard the natives thought of the land. His job was just to take care of it.” (page 62) Discuss the difference in Tom’s point of view compared to Isabel’s. Does this difference in opinion foreshadow future events? How does it relate to their conflicting opinions of what to do with Lucy?
9. Did you sense that the silver rattle might turn out to play a pivotal role in the story?
10. Tom believes that rules are vital, that they are what keep a man from becoming a savage. Do you agree with him?
11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?
12. Tom and Isabel’s deception impacts the lives of everyone around them. What did you think of the other characters’ reactions when they discover the truth about Lucy? Consider Hannah, Gwen, Septimus, Isabel’s parents, Ralph, Bluey.
13. Discuss Hannah’s reunion with Grace. Do you think she had fair expectations? Did you agree with Dr. Sumpton’s advice to Hannah about completely cutting Lucy off from Isabel and Tom?
14. M.L. Stedman makes it clear that there is no one perfect answer to the question of who should raise Grace/Lucy. She seems to undermine all notions of absolutes. It is clear that she will not dismiss all Germans as evil either. There is Hannah’s husband, ripe for persecution, and yet he is utterly innocent. Discuss the places in the novel where easy certainty turns out to be wrong.
15. Were you surprised by Isabel’s final decision to admit her role in the choice to keep Lucy—freeing Tom, but losing her child forever? Why or why not? What would you have done?
16. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? What emotions did you feel at the story’s end? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Hannah and Isabel are connected in more ways than their love for Lucy: they both have a penchant for playing the piano. Play some of the pieces mentioned in the novel, such as George Frideric Handel’s Messiah or Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations at your book club discussion.
2. In a letter to Isabel, Tom writes: “I wish you could see the sunrise and sunset here. And the stars: the sky gets crowded at night, and it is a bit like watching a clock, seeing the constellations slide across the sky. It’s comforting to know that they’ll show up, however bad the day has been, however crook things get.” (page 57) Host an evening of stargazing with your book club members. See if you can identify any constellations or planets. For a constellation guide and tips, visit StarDate.org/nightsky/constellations.
3. The lighthouse is itself a character in the novel, and Tom is a meticulous, attentive, even loving keeper. Have you seen many lighthouses in your travels? Are you drawn to them? Talk as a group about the appeal of these isolated buildings, why they are so romantic and compelling. Share photographs of your favorite lighthouses.
A Conversation with M.L. Stedman, Author of The Light Between Oceans
Interview by Tess Taylor
The opening sequence of your book captures the solitary beauty of living on a lighthouse and looking back to land. When I read the sequences of months passing and Tom, the lightkeeper, waiting for news, I thought of To The Lighthouse, a book where, paradoxically, we never meet the lightkeeper everyone keeps setting out to see. Lighthouses play a special place in the literary imagination. What drew you to this one?
When I write I just let a picture or a phrase float into awareness, and follow where it leads. For this story, a lighthouse was the very first thing that came to me. I closed my eyes, and there it was: solid and mysterious and the instigating image of a tale about which at that point I knew nothing at all. I was curious to find out more, so I kept writing. Of course the people I discovered at the lighthouse - Tom and Isabel - drew me into their lives, and the dilemma they face as they try to stay true to their love, yet true to themselves and their own sense of right and wrong.
To answer the other part of your question - yes, lighthouses seem to attract writers, perhaps because they automatically betoken the drama of journey and of risk. Wherever you see a lighthouse, there's something at stake, which is great territory for fiction.
As I worked on the book, I discovered that they appeal not only to writers, but to just about everyone. When you mention lighthouses, people generally get a gleam in their eye and lean in a little. They're an archetype that gives people freedom to imagine, and freedom to explore the human condition stripped down to its very essence. They represent the ultimate unfair yet heroic struggle: man's fight against the forces of nature, with its hidden hazards and infinite power. And they're a fulcrum: between safety and danger, light and dark, journey and stasis, communication and isolation, on which our imagination can - has to - pivot, because they're not just one or the other.
Some of your writing about lighthouses shows a great deal of research into their intricacies, like the way that they use small amounts of light to illuminate great distances; or the way that they shine over the edge of the earth without actually lighting up what's most directly below them. Did you do a great deal of technical research into lighthouses? While writing, did you go on special lighthouse expeditions?
Yes, and yes. I found the technical research so fascinating that it became addictive: lighthouses bring together so many aspects of science and technology, as well as maritime and social history. At their core, they're instruments of commerce - tools that made shipping sufficiently safe for voyages to be commercially viable. My research traversed everything from the history of glass-making to the physics of light to the early engineering of automation, and the development of communication methods from signaling with flags to Morse code.
I read some of the old catalogues and instruction books of Chance Brothers (lighthouse manufacturers) in the British Library. In the Australian National Archives, I trawled the lightkeepers' correspondence files as well as the meticulously kept logbooks from the era. It gave me shivers to think that the leather-bound volumes in my hands were written by men long-dead, who could never have imagined how touched by their words I would be almost a century later. And yes, I did go climbing up lighthouses in the south-west of Western Australia, near where the novel is set. Standing on the gallery of the lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin with the wind howling around me gave me a visceral sense of setting.
In fact, a great deal of your novel is about separations and long distances- people, who, for one reason or another have been wrenched from one another. I just asked about the technical work you did in researching all this. I also wonder: Did the way that lighthouses work seem to be a kind of central or touchstone metaphor for the way you depict human relationships?
Yes, I found it to be an incredibly rich metaphor for what the characters experience, especially Tom and Isabel. For a start, there's light and shadow, especially in the Jungian sense of the shadow side of human nature, and questions about what the characters suppress or disown. Importantly, lighthouses don't move. They are dependable, efficient and concerned with others' safety. I see Tom as the lighthouse and Isabel as the mercury that allows him to move whilst staying anchored. Looking at a lighthouse at night, we can only see a light - we can't tell what's going on inside it or even see the structure that supports it. We're oblivious to its inner nature. And the lighthouse cannot illuminate the space closest to it: its light is only for others. The one person Tom can't save is himself.
Like most lighthouses, the Janus light rotates, to give it a unique 'character' by going dark then returning a few seconds later. You can only identify it by looking at the whole pattern, not just the light or the dark in isolation. In life, too, it's important to take people as a whole, not just focus on flaws or moments of weakness. There's something, too, about having faith, in the moments it's obscured, that the light will come back, and Tom tries to keep faith that he will see Isabel again, even when she's lost in darkness in the latter part of the book.
I also see a parallel between the lantern lens and the characters' actions. The light is a tiny flame that is magnified and reaches far beyond what the lightkeeper can see. Similarly, Tom and Isabel's initial decision about the baby is the act of a moment that goes on to have consequences beyond their imagining. Sometimes, events turn our insignificant deeds into grave turning points in life.
This novel is set against the backdrop of the aftermath World War One, and understanding the losses that everyone touched by that war has sufferedwhich is to say everyoneis critical. The war touches each character differently, but they each reflect facets of the greater loss. When did you know that this story would be set at that time? Did the lighthouse and the war emerge together in your mind? How did you find yourself imagining them?
When the lighthouse first turned up, I knew that I was seeing something a long time ago, but I didn't know exactly when. Once I saw Tom, the lightkeeper, I knew that he had opted for life 'on the Lights' to get away from trauma, and that that trauma was the Great War. I only found out later, speaking to an archivist in the Australian Archives, that this happened frequently: many returned soldiers sought the solitude that life as a lightkeeper offered: they no longer knew how to function in civilization. The more I read the stories of Australian WWI soldiers, the more I understood the sort of man who volunteered for war, and the impact it had on him.
You write very movingly about the desire to parent and of an impossible set of choices faced by two sets of parents and the losses each sustains. Do you feel that your characters are served justice in the end?
I don't want to give much away about how the story ends, so I'll just say that the question of what constitutes justice is central to the book, particularly because following the rules and following the heart will each cause dreadful suffering. I hope I've done justice to my characters, in that I've tried to let readers see why each of them does what they do, and how the world looks to them. I think that to understand another's life is to find some measure of compassion for them.
Here at Barnes & Noble, we're always on the lookout for great emerging writers. Is there anyone you're reading these days who moves you? Would you give us a few recommendations for this summer's reading?
Perhaps any writer a reader hasn't encountered before qualifies as an 'emerging writer' for that reader. So thinking of books that move me and that I'd recommend, here's a random selection. Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson, is a beautiful study of late love and human frailty. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton's novella, is a masterpiece in miniature, which packs so much longing and anguish and guilt into such a small space. And of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is always a life-affirming read. On the short fiction side, a recent debut I loved was Hot Kitchen Snow, a collection by English writer Susannah Rickards, filled with poignant, beautifully written stories.