I think that the Goodreads Choice Awards are pretty nifty. I am a big fan of awards, but I think that sometimes (especially for books), the critics can get it wrong (why the heck do people keep giving awards to Dave Eggers?). It's interesting to watch a community of people who really like books come together to vote about the best books. I think they get it right far more often.
That being said, I don't understand why The Casual Vacancy won best fiction this year. Yes, I liked it, but I did not love it. No one did, apparently. There were plenty of other books in the fiction category that could have won (and I am trying to read them all in a mad frenzy over the next fifteen days). One category I normally ignore is historical fiction, because I have in the past been generally uninterested in it. However, the winner this year, The Light Between Oceans, caught my eye when it was published in the summer. Seeing that it took its category (beating out the Booker-Prize-winning Bring Up the Bodies and my beloved The Snow Child) affirmed my need to read the book.
Here is the premise: It is post-World War I. Husband and wife Tom and Isabel live alone on an island off the coast of Australia. Tom tends the lighthouse on the island. Isabel wants to have a family but has several failed pregnancies. One day, a boat washes up to the island. Inside is a dead man and a living baby. Isabel, having just suffered a stillborn birth, convinces Tom to keep the baby, assuming that its family is dead. A few years later, they discover that the mother is still alive.
I found the novel to be quite an engaging one--there were passages of real beauty that were never too flowery nor too sparse; they were quite balanced in their creation. The novel, while historical, never felt overly didactic, which is my real issue with historical fiction: "Look, things are different in this book because it's 1920, not 2012! No cell phones!!" The setting was quite natural and never got in the way of the book. Stedman's book is categorized as historical fiction but could easily also be categorized as a psychological study. The book raises a lot of interesting questions about love, family, secrets and guilt and creates some quite flawed characters to explore these issues: two young ladies dealing with children and birth and loss, a trench veteran and a little girl torn between homes.
It was in these characters that I found flaws of the novel. I am not going to say that the characters were not relateable or likeable, which is sometimes true of this book, because that is not a valid criticism. Characters do not necessarily have to be either. Tom, the lighthouse keeper/war veteran, was not a particularly well-done character. In moments where Tom might have to confront emotion, he would hide behind "I am a veteran I am emotionally damaged I can't talk about my feelings", which would be fine for him to say to his wife but is not something that should be kept from the reader, too. How can we understand him as a character if we aren't privy to his thoughts? Isabel, I understand, was a hard character to write. There is a fine line between unbalanced and crazy, and at times Stedman's depiction of her would veer into the crazy when it needn't. These moments were frustrating--it's not hard to portray the character as a nutjob, and doing so feels too easy. It's more interesting (and more difficult) to create a character who is unstable but able to be sympathized with, and this version of Isabel disappears at times in the latter half of the novel.
The ending was perhaps most frustrating of all. Without spoiling very much of the conclusion, we jump to 1950 to see what's happened to everybody. This, too, feels like the easy way out; yes, I wanted to know how everything turned out in the end, but I personally would have appreciated several time jumps to show everyone's lives developing and changing, instead of just the one vignette we get. The way the story resolves (hint: someone has a terminal illness) lets too much sentimentality ooze into the writing; this very lack of sentimental ooey-gooey-gush was one of the novel's strengths early on, so it's disappointing to watch it succumb at the end.
M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans was a well-put-together novel, historical or not. It is a fascinating psychological portrayal of some very damaged people that occasionally falters and frustrates, with a cloying ending that cheaply tugs at the heartstrings. It is a very good novel, but not quite a great one.
My Rating: 4/5
The Light Between Oceans on Goodreads
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