Monday, October 17, 2016

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I could count on one hand the number of excellent novels that have been made into excellent, or even very good movies. The primary exception to this rule is Marlynne Robinson’s superb novel, Housekeeping which was made into an excellent movie of the same name and starred the incomparable Christine Lahti.

Given that view, it may come as a surprise that today I’m going to review a novel that I first experienced as a movie, and was so moved that I decided to read the book. The Light Between Oceans,  by M.L. Stedman is a wonderfully written and moving novel, and surprise of surprises to this reader, I thought the reading of the novel was enhanced by having already seen the movie, and, likewise, the movie version enlivened and enhanced the novel.

I’m not going to give away much of the storyline here since that is what is so central to the book; instead I hope you will read the book for yourself and see the movie. The title refers to a lighthouse between two oceans, built on the tip of an island that is the top of a peak in an undersea mountain range.

From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an edgeless carpet below the cliffs.

The bare bones of the story is that a man, Thomas, home from horrible times in World War I, and seeking solitude and refuge, is assigned the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock—a half day’s journey from the small seaside village from which the lighthouse receives its provisions every six months. After an initial six-month temporary assignment, he is given the full-time position. Much to his surprise, he meets a young woman, Isabel, only child of a headmaster in the small village, who falls in love with the older man and essentially begs him to marry her and take her with him to live on the remote island. Although his initial reaction is to dissuade her, he cannot deny his growing love for this bright and brave young woman.

Tom is an exceptionally honorable and rule-bound man, he feels blessed by Isabel’s love, and he does marry her and take her with him to live on Janus Rock. Totally in love with each other, and both loving the solitary life of the island, they set up house and she tends to the chickens and goats and the sparse garden while Thomas mans the lighthouse. Both want children, but after three miscarriages, grief threatens to unravel the marriage.

And then, miraculously (or so it seems to Isabel), a boat washes up on the island carrying a dead man and an infant. “He hoisted out a woolen bundle: a woman’s soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant.” Isabel immediately takes the baby to be a gift from God, perhaps in exchange for her miscarriages. Thomas, on the other hand, is a rigorously moral and rule-bound man who has survived the carnage of the War only by adhering strictly to his moral code. Now he is torn between his love for Isabel and what he perceives as his duty.

And so the scene is set. Tom, too, soon becomes entranced by the baby. When he reminds Isabel that the baby’s mother may be alive, and that they should turn the baby over to the authorities, her reaction is swift and adamant.
What if the mother’s not dead, and he’s got a wife fretting, waiting for them both?
What woman would let her baby out of her sight: Face it, Tom: she must have drowned. 
She clasped his hands again. ‘I know how much your rules mean to you, and I know this is technically breaking them. But what are those rules for? They’re to save lives! That’s all I’m saying we should do, sweetheart: save this life. She’s here and she needs us and we can help her. Please.
Izzy, I can’t. This isn’t up to me. Don’t you understand?
Her face darkened. “How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.
What follows, of course, is how they handle this perhaps miracle, and how it affects their love. Besides the wonderfully portrayed love between these two for each other and their charge, there is so much of interest in this story about lighthouses, about the rugged coast of Australia. The beauty of the written description is brought to full light and color by the film version. It is hard for me to believe this is a debut novel for Ms. Stedman; I’m confident it will not  be her last.

The movie does justice to the novel both by its incredible cinematography and the superb casting. The love Tom and Isabel have for each other and for the baby is masterfully portrayed in both written and movie versions.

The moral dilemmas the book and movie have left me continue to employ both my mind and my heart. I think you will also be left pondering what you would have done in this situation, and also what would have been the right thing to do. I would like to have presented it as a question for my ethics classes; I still find myself wondering, even agonizing along with Tom and Izzy.

If you are like me in tending to avoid movie versions of books you have loved, I challenge you to see this movie and read the book and ask yourself if both are made better by the combination.

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