‘Light Between Oceans’ illuminates moral decisions

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Some fiction books are full of moral questions, with characters navigating life, making decisions and then living poorly or well with the consequences. With books such as this, most readers will inevitably ask themselves, “What would I have done in this situation?”

That’s the case with “The Light Between Oceans” (Scribner, 2012) by M.L. Stedman.

Set in Australia after World War I, the book is the well-crafted story of a husband and wife, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who discover a dying man and an infant in a boat that has washed up on the remote island, Janus Rock, where they live. The couple decide to keep and raise the baby as their own.

As often happens in good fiction, complications arise: The Sherbournes visit their hometown of Partageuse and hear the story of a local woman, Hannah, who believes she has lost her husband and infant daughter in a boating accident. Should the Sherbournes confess their suspicions to Hannah or the local police? Or should they keep the child they have named Lucy, who is now a happy, much-loved little girl?

Stedman does an excellent job of revealing different parts of Australia, including both the small town of Partageuse, where Isabel grew up, and Janus Rock, where Tom is stationed as the lighthouse keeper.

The author emphasizes the isolation and loneliness of the island, allowing readers insight into why Isabel, in particular, who has suffered a series of miscarriages, believes that the child they rescued on the beach has been sent from God to compensate for her many losses.

In fact, the author goes to great pains to paint sympathetically the Sherbournes’ decision to keep baby Lucy. But Tom, at heart an honest and honorable man, has doubts about their fateful decision that grow stronger with each passing year. Should he do the right thing and lose the daughter he loves and risk destroying his marriage, or keep quiet and live with his guilt?

Although “The Light Between Oceans” is not a terribly deep book, it is an enjoyable read that seems tailor-made for book clubs, prompting moral questions that draw readers to weigh in. It reminds me of “To Build a Ship” (Viking Press, 1963) by Don Berry and “Waiting for Sunrise” by William Boyd (Harper, 2012), although the latter books are richer and more complex.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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