Fiction - hardcover; Doubleday; 400 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In the opening chapter of M.L. Stedman's extraordinary debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, a couple of lines from a conversation acts as a portent of things to come. It is 1918, and Tom Sherbourne, returned from the Great War, is sailing on board a passenger ship between Sydney and Perth, en route to a new job. During the trip he rescues a woman from the unwanted advances of another returned soldier. He tells her she will no longer have any more trouble from him, but it's up to her whether she reports the incident formally. "Being over there changes a man," he says, in an attempt to explain the man's actions. "Right and wrong don't look so different any more to some."
It is that blurring of lines between right and wrong that later come back to haunt Tom. And, through an amazing coincidence, so, too, does the woman.
Captivating and heart-rending
But let me backtrack. This novel, which is the first by Australian-born, London-based Stedman, was apparently subject to an international bidding war by nine publishers keen to acquire rights to it. I'm not surprised. This is one of those rare books that is so captivating and heart-rending that it leaves you feeling bereft — and cried out — when it ends.
It is set mainly in the 1920s on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean. Tom works for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service running and maintaining the lighthouse. It is a lonely life, but when he meets and woos Isabel during some rare onshore leave, he brings her back to the island as his wife.
Their idyllic existence is ruined by a succession of miscarriages and a stillbirth that plunge the couple into despair. But one day, a dinghy washes up on their little beach containing a dead man and a "woman's soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant".
Despite Tom's reservations — he's a stickler for rules and order — the couple decide to keep the baby, whom they call Lucy, and pass her off as their own daughter. Their isolation and lack of contact with other humans, save from the boatmen that bring them occasional supplies, means their subterfuge can be carried out relatively easily.
But when they go on their first shore leave, some two years later, the impact of their decision hits them in an unexpected way: a local widow, ravaged by grief, is still looking for her baby, believed lost at sea.
A secret begins to unspool
As Tom and Isabel's secret begins to unspool, the small rift in their marriage widens into a gulf — Tom, who has never been comfortable with their decision, now wants to do the right thing and tell the authorities; Isabel, who believes Lucy was a "gift from God", wants to carry on as if nothing has happened. Who is right? What impact will it have on Lucy if her parents decide to come clean? And will the real mother be any happier having a child she has not brought up returned to her?
The Light Between Oceans charts the impact of one fateful decision on both the "fake" parents and the real mother. It also reveals the impact on others unwittingly caught up in the subterfuge, such as Isabel's parents, who are much devoted to their only grandchild.
By setting the story in the aftermath of the Great War, Stedman is also able to highlight other issues, such as the importance of family when so many sons had been lost on the battlefields of Europe, and the ways in which small-town communities can band together to ostracise people perceived as being different.
It's not a perfect novel — I felt Isabel's motherly devotion was sometimes too contrived and Tom's never-ending patience unrealistic — but it is an intelligent, page-turning read. And the ending, so beautifully and touchingly rendered, means only a hard-hearted reader won't want to cry buckets over it.
The Light Between Oceans is published in the UK tomorrow.