Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Light Between Oceans – M L Stedman

You have to love the cover!
This isn’t a review of this book. There seem to be more than enough reviews going around without me adding to them. (You can read some of them here.) This is simply jotting down some thoughts I had. 

In my opinion, Random House would have had a difficult time deciding how to market The Light Between Oceans because it starts off as literary fiction. But then it turns into mainstream, and could also be classified as historical, or women’s fiction, which is odd when the protagonist is male. Another thing that occurred to me is that when there is so much hype about a book you read it with a certain amount of expectation, and that’s always dangerous. Usually because the narrative doesn’t live up to your expectations. I feel sorry for the author in this respect;  I am sure she didn’t ask for all the hype, although she might have welcomed it. What do they say about any publicity being good publicity?

When I started the book I thought it might reach my Top Ten List. I love the sea, I love lighthouses, what more could I ask for? There’s a place, on page 40 in my edition, where the writing soars. It’s about Tom’s first time, alone, in the lighthouse, and the words that got me – here, in my heart and here, in my head – were, “For the briefest moment, he had no edges.”

I left a little gap there, so you could think about how it might be to have no edges.

I love the writer’s exploration of Tom’s connection with the vastness of the ocean, the emptiness of the sky, and the stars. And the light. How the light of the lighthouse is a metaphor for spirituality and goodness, and how the stars (because we keep coming back to the stars) reflect this, too.  And how tending the light helps Tom make his way out of the darkness of his war experiences. 

From the start of the novel we are led to believe that the story is all going to be told through Tom’s point of view. His character is beautifully drawn;  I wanted to stay with him through the whole journey. But, sadly, we gradually lose track of Tom and his thoughts.  We are still privy to him, but his part in the story becomes overshadowed by (too many) other characters and the minutia of their lives.  As a result of this, the narrative loses its backbone.  It flounders.  In a way this all happens when they leave the lighthouse, when they leave the metaphor for spirituality and goodness.  Regardless of what that indicates, a good story still needs to have structure.

There are other points I should raise, but I won’t.  This is enough. Back to my own work, with lots to think about my own (unfinished and unpublished) narrative. (I think you know what I'm saying...) 

P.S.  It's just occurred to me what a great setting a lighthouse would make for a gothic novel! 
And I wanted to end this with a stunning photo of a lighthouse being engulfed by waves. I found one but it is (in spite of it being on several other websites) protected by copyright.  Please go here to read about Jean Guichard, the photographer extraordinaire of lighthouses, and to view his images. You won't be sorry.


  1. Thank you, Kathy, for sharing your thoughts on The Light Between Oceans. My book club discussed it recently and I thought it was a mighty effort for a debut novelist, although the dialogue was a bit banal - especially at the beginning of the book. I think it's true that too much hype can actually harm a writer's work and cause reviewers like Marieke Hardy on The First Tuesday Book Club to call it "terrible, terrible writing". As my dear mother would say, there is no excuse for rudeness - perhaps Ms Hardy's mother should have said the same to her during her formative years. Anyway, it is, what it is. A lovely story, well-researched, and eminently book-clubbable, but clearly not for everyone.

  2. Oh Kathy I loved the same bits! I wanted to love the entire novel but I couldn't overlook the same things you've mentioned here. It lost its way, but I still enjoyed it for the most part. I thought it was going to be great for my thesis (about wind and water) and it is, but in a different way. I caught a little of the review on First Tuesday Book Club, and was interested to hear that they thought there was too much description of the lighthouse and island, etc., and that it served no purpose. I felt these were the most beautifully crafted parts of the book, and they said much more than the mediocre dialogue ever could.

  3. Hi Kathy, I'm really interested in your comment that this book starts out as literary fiction, then turns "mainstream". I puzzle endlessly over what makes a work "literary fiction" rather than "contemporary fiction". Would you mind commenting some more (maybe in another blog post) on what you see as the differences?

    1. Lovely, a challenge, and something to get my teeth into! When is this assignment due, Sir? :) I will gladly do so, Andrea.

      On another topic, glad to see you got the better of the techno gremlins and got on here with your real name.

  4. Yes, I think "Name/URL" is a new option - it wasn't coming up for me before. My trick for fixing smiley faces in emails doesn't work here, though :(

  5. How can it be rude for a book critic to criticise a book??

    1. I didn't actually say it was rude, did I? I think what I was getting at is there are ways of criticising books, and there are ways that are just bad manners. The answer also lies in the fact that I'm not a book critic. I'm first and foremost a writer and because of that I'm extra careful when it comes to criticising books. I try to see it from the writer's point of view as well as from a reader's.