The Light Between Oceans


Author: ML Stedman

Finished on: 12 May 2017

Where did I get this book: A book club read

My main frustration when I read The Da Vinci Code many years ago was not that it was a bad book. It was that is was a superb story, badly written.

And The Light Between Oceans left me feeling the same way.

Despite the fact that there is much to enjoy here in a moral dilemma of The Caucasian Chalk Circle proportions, the writing is infuriatingly slack.

Books like this make me question everything. On the grand to do list of my life, writing a good book comes second only to having children in terms of what I want to achieve. I read a lot. I write a lot. I think I know the sort of thing I’m aiming for. And then these books come along. Hugely successful. Even, in the case of this and Dan Brown’s holy grail super-bestseller, a great story. But writing that needs such a thorough edit I am tempted to get out the red biro myself.

We have a baggy plot with loads of superfluous information in some places, and almost nothing on some more pivotal moments; confusion around perspective, style and even tenses. Telling, not just instead of, but repeatedly as well as, showing. A grieving mother polishes the contents of her sons’ bedrooms daily. Okay, her sons are dead and she’s endlessly polishing… I understand that this lady is heartbroken. Please don’t then tell me several times that she’s heartbroken. Can’t we move it along.

I have devoured enough Jilly Coopers in my time to know a writer doesn’t have to be Tolstoy to keep me hooked. And since I joined my beloved book club, we have read several books I would never have chosen myself, and I have enjoyed them enormously. So, I like to think I picked this one up with an open mind.

The truth is I don’t want this review to sound like a panning, because a lot of my frustration is due to the high quality of Stedman’s plot. This book could have been so good. The central trio of characters all provide rich fodder for meaty ethical debate: Tom, who finds a baby and a dead man in a boat on the small island where he lives and works as a lighthouse keeper. Izzy, Tom’s wife, who insists they keep the child, as a substitute for the three babies she has miscarried. Hannah, the baby’s biological mother, slowly fading away with grief back on the mainland. All good stuff.

Our previous book club read was The Snow Child, and they must be having a two-for-one special on books about desperate parents secretly adopting other people’s children at Derbyshire libraries at the moment, because the similarities between the plots are striking. A heartbroken couple; a struggling marriage; the mysterious appearance of a child; a dilemma around whether it is possible, or right, to keep her.

But the writing could not be more different. Ivey’s delicate, subtle style creeps up on you, and almost without noticing you’re living the experience alongside her characters and sobbing your heart out. Stedman, on the other hand, hits you over the head with a great big mallet of mawkish emotion.

It is a spectacular achievement to write a book, especially one of this scope. The Light Between Oceans has sold over two million copies and been made into a film, not to mention the achievement of splitting opinion at my lovely book club. So, Stedman is clearly doing something very right. Which leads me to conclude that maybe it’s not her, it’s me.

But I guess everything can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I have never made claims for objectivity in my book reviews, and this just brings that home with a bang.


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