Book review: Resetting the moral compass

‘ON THE Offshore Lights,” writes ML Stedman near the beginning of her extraordinary debut novel The Light Between Oceans, “you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no-one will say you’re wrong”.

Certainly, the story that Stedman has chosen to tell has yet to do anything wrong in the publishing world. The Light Between Oceans was the subject of a frenzied bidding war and has already sold in 20 countries. And film rights are also being negotiated. It is one of those books that could easily be suffocated by its own hype, were it not for the fact that it so consistently exceeds it.

Tom Sherbourne is an Australian First World War hero traumatised by his experiences on the Western Front. Returning home to Australia he joins the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service, searching for peace on the remote, uninhabited Janus Rock. During a brief sojourn on shore leave he meets Isabel, a beautiful teenager, and the two marry and move to Janus together to start their own life “on the Lights”.

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But when a rowing boat washes ashore with a dead man and a healthy baby girl inside, their decision about what to do next, cocooned away from the real world and coping with a recent loss, has devastating impacts for all of them.

Stedman writes with a delicate and imaginative touch, painting a picture of life on Janus so vivid that the island itself becomes a character. But the heart of Stedman’s book is the difference between right and wrong – as she examines from all angles the age-old question of why women sometimes take other people’s babies and raise them as their own – and whether such a decision can ever truly be justified.

This is a novel that cleverly takes a populist concept and turns it into an accessible and beautifully written piece of literature. It will make you cry, its characters will stay with you for days after you have finished with it, and it will make you question your own morals. The Light Between Oceans will be huge, and it deserves every single bit of its success.

• The Light Between Oceans

ML Stedman

Doubleday, £12.99

Emma Cowing