The Light Between Oceans by Australian author M L Stedman is a compelling, heartbreaking drama that explores the depths of grief and loss.
Tom Sherbourne is the central character in this work of historical fiction. He is a decorated war hero, having fought on the Western Front during World War I. After the war, Tom takes up a job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Western Australia. He welcomes the isolation, the rhythm of life, and the singular focus, to keep the light burning. He marries Isabel Graysmark, a bold and fearless young woman who adapts quickly to remote living. Isabel wants a large family.
The stresses of work and marriage inevitably cause conflict, raising issues of love, loyalty, and commitment. They discover that their choices have consequences.
The story highlights seven genuine causes of grief to which I have added a related life lesson.
THE INJUSTICE OF WAR
Tom Sherbourne is haunted by his memories of the war. He has seen it all. The wounded flesh, the twisted limbs, the pleading eyes, the dying words. War is callous and indiscriminate. Tom carries emotional scars that he tries to conceal. He struggles to make sense of it all, whether it was luck or providence that allowed him to survive. He weeps for the men who were snatched away to his left and right.
Tom has plenty of time to think about the war. He struggles to find the words to describe the horror, the brutality, the madness. The truth of what he lived evades him. How can you talk about human frailty, errors of judgment, and irrational behaviour when death stalks you at every turn? The pressure to do your duty was immense. Sometimes it overwhelmed you, causing you to act impulsively, without restraint. Tom honours those who lost their life, whatever their personal contribution.
But when the war is over and the memorials are erected, there are those who will say,
‘To be victorious and dead is a poor sort of victory.’
THE ABSENCE OF FAMILIAR FACES
Isabel was a resident of Port Partageuse. She lived with her parents, Bill and Violet. Her older brothers, Alfie and Hugh, volunteered for the war effort, joining the same regiment on the same day. They were proud of their consecutive service numbers. Three days after arriving in France the boys were killed in action.
Isabel adored her older brothers. The news of their deaths shook their family. The loss leaked over her mother’s life like a stain. She would spend days tidying her sons’ rooms, polishing the silver frames of their photographs. Her father became silent.
As an impressionable fourteen-year-old, Isabel struggled to understand the loss. Tragedy is like that. It does not make sense. Their life changed instantly. Isabel thought,
‘It was as if one of the shells from the French frontline had exploded in the middle of her family, leaving a crater that she could never fill or repair.’
No one was certain of their status. There were no labels to describe their loss. A family of five had been torn apart, reducing their number to three. Familiar faces were absent from the family table. No gathering would ever be quite the same.
THE SHATTERING OF PERSONAL AMBITION
Isabel wanted to be a mother. She wanted to bring a new life into the world. She knew she was naturally gifted, possessed of the ability to care and nurture her child with love, attention, and openness.
After the third miscarriage Isabel’s dream of a family was slipping away. Each miscarriage confirmed her worst fears, her inability to carry a baby full term. To lose a pregnancy was heartbreaking and she felt devastated. She did not want to contemplate a future without children.
And then the miracle happened. A dinghy carrying a dead body, and a crying baby, washed up on the shore of Janus Rock. Through a process of gentle coercion Isabel encouraged Tom to ignore the formalities of reporting the incident and pretend the baby was theirs. Isabel saw the child as a gift from God and gave her the name Lucy. The bond between mother and baby was immediate.
‘The simple fact was that sure as a graft will take and fuse on a rose bush, the rootstock of Isabel’s motherhood – her every drive and instinct, left raw and exposed by the recent stillbirth- had grafted seamlessly to the scion, the baby which needed mothering. Grief and distance bound the wound, perfecting the bond with a speed only nature could engineer.’
Tom was apprehensive. He knew the consequences of not lodging a report. He allowed Isabel’s joy to cloud his vision.
When he heard that the mother of the baby was living in Partageuse, he felt compelled to let her know the baby was safe and well. It was the silver rattle that brought the deception undone.
THE BETRAYAL OF A SHARED DREAM
Isabel believed Lucy to be an answer to prayer. She believed sending her away to an uncertain future would be an act of heartlessness and ingratitude. She embraced the child unreservedly while knowing Tom was not convinced and still harboured doubts. Her pointed response was,
‘Love is bigger than rulebooks, Tom.’
Tom dreamt of drowning, of flailing about in the water, unable to find any solid ground. Despite his misgivings, he had to admit that Lucy found a way into his heart. But his emotions were all over the place. He wondered how he could feel both tenderness and unease when she kissed him goodnight.
Tom knew Isabel’s dream could not last. He understood that the lie would drag them down and diminish their chances of a happy marriage, that when the truth surfaced, he would be shamed and blamed.
‘Why? Why could he not just leave things be? Tom is supposed to protect his family, not rip it apart.’
There shared dream had become a shattered dream. We read,
‘Isabel sits alone under the jacaranda. Her grief for Lucy is as strong as ever: a pain that has no location and no cure. Putting down the burden of the lie has meant giving up the freedom of the dream.’
THE INABILITY TO EASE THE HURT
As Tom awaits trial, he has plenty of time to reflect, to ponder his actions. He likes the solitude of the cell. It feels familiar.
Tom cannot reconcile the grief he feels at what he has done and the profound relief that runs through him. They are like two opposing physical forces.
He fears for Isabel, knowing he has deprived her of a child. He allowed it to happen, and he knew it could only ever end in suffering.
Tom feels powerless. His wife holds him responsible for the mess. She has no desire to see him or to forgive. He cannot imagine a life without her. She rescued him from the trauma of war and offered him a future.
Sometimes waiting is the hardest thing of all. Waiting for the opportunity to repair what is broken, to restore what is lost.
THE EXPERIENCE OF PREJUDICE AND HATE
Frank Roennfeldt was born in Austria. He was interned during the war. He married Hannah Potts and they had a child, Grace. Frank was a shop owner and was regarded by many of the people in Partageuse as a decent man. Hannah was amazed at her husband’s ability to be positive and not hold a grudge. She felt he was entitled to be angry at the way some people criticised him, but he chose to put it to one side. He said,
‘I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend my time hating people for what happened, like my father did, or I can forgive and forget. Forgiving is less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.’
In 1926, following an Anzac Day commemoration, a drunken mob were looking to take out their anger on something or someone. Many mistakenly thought Frank to be German. He was often the victim of strong anti-German sentiment after the war. Hannah sensed the imminent danger and encouraged Frank to grab Grace and flee to the wharf where he could jump into a boat and escape the threat.
It was a good plan and would help defuse the situation. As the dinghy drifted away from the shoreline, Frank felt a pain in his chest. The massive heart attack took his life. Grace was at the mercy of the sea. Miraculously, the small vessel eventually found its way to Janus Rock.
THE DESOLATION OF NOT KNOWING
Hannah anticipated the safe return of Frank and Grace. She wanted to hold them, to reassure them that everything was OK. But they did not return. Morning came and there was still no sign of the boat.
Hannah tried to remain positive, thinking there had to be a rational explanation. With each passing hour her fear and apprehension grew. She began to entertain the thought that they were not coming back. She was distraught. The grief overwhelmed her. She didn’t know what to think.
When a loved one leaves us unexpectedly and we do not know what has happened to them, it is natural to imagine all the possible scenarios, to fill in the gaps. Perhaps Hannah saw in her mind the boat capsizing and Frank and Grace drowning.
When we do not know, we are denied the information needed to grieve appropriately. Hannah grieved the separation, the sense of abandonment, but all other grief had to be put on hold. She felt acutely the desolation of not knowing.