Deft debut charts birth and betrayal

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
By M. L. Stedman
Vintage, $32.95

TOM Sherbourne wants to make amends. He's endured World War I at the Western Front, but has returned to Australia with a feeling of uncertainty, ''having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then''. In M.L. Stedman's debut novel, The Light between Oceans, her protagonist is quietly convinced his life is a series of borrowed days: a betrayal to those who fell on the battlefield around him.

When Tom decides to become a lighthouse keeper, he's given a placement at Janus Rock. It's a tough posting on a square mile of green, accessible only by boat, that ''dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica''. The closest community is Point Partageuse, a town long neglected by the outside world until the outside world found use for its young men in 1914.

On the way to his posting Tom meets Isabel Graysmark. They court with some efficiency: letters are exchanged, she proposes, they marry. Isabel moves to Janus Rock and experiments with the boundaries of her role as wife: she suggests daytime nudity until Tom advises her of the necessity of wearing clothing to maintain their normality in seclusion. Their days are paced around Tom's devotion to the lighthouse. Vapour tubes are changed and logbooks kept.

The loss of Isabel's first pregnancy is marked by a driftwood cross. Her second requires another. The third is a stillbirth. Soon after, a dinghy washes up on their shores containing a dead man and a baby; the only sign of the mother is an abandoned cardigan.

This biblical delivery of an infant is one that Isabel, a mother in waiting, cannot resist. She convinces the fastidious Tom to delay notifying the authorities. Isabel then negotiates her claim to the infant. Forcing on them both her belief that the mother is dead, she devises an acceptable notion of justice: if they don't keep her, Isabel argues, she'll end up in an orphanage. Swayed by the unnerving need in his wife, Tom reluctantly gives in to her will. A stolen child fills the space left by their dead ones.

Years later, when the foundling they christened Lucy has grown to know them as parents, they discover the child's real mother is still alive.

The cadence of Stedman's third-person narrative, shouldered more often than not by Tom, is almost like speaking. Other than an odd ''handkerchief of grass'' or an inquisitive gull that watches ''from its seaweed-cushioned rock'', the writerly flourishes are minimal.

While the plot is briefly at risk of being more contrived - it is possible to feel frustrated by the coincidences in timing later in the novel, the difference seconds make in one person knocking on that door, another finding a letter - the writing has an effortless quality. The author's voice is clear and bright, her use of language deft and unobtrusive.

The question of what is just and what can be forgiven is at play throughout the novel. Isabel's motives for keeping the baby parallel her desperate need for the child her body can't satisfy - she's still lactating from the stillbirth when the dinghy is found - but Tom is more ambivalent and hence more interesting. War has stained him with guilt, a deep need to placate, to smooth things over. His misgivings provide a more comfortable association for the reader than Isabel's fierce longing, but there's a lack of tendentiousness in Stedman's telling that allows the characters to interact, fail, aspire, thieve and beg without the baggage of an author's placard. The precedent is set in an earlier scene when Tom apologises for a soldier on the verge of assaulting a young woman: ''Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don't look so different any more to some.''

The Light between Oceans has an uncommon air of assurance for a debut. The bidding war the manuscript generated and the rumour of film rights have confirmed the confidence Stedman assumed in the writing.

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