The Light between Oceans: Not only a means for learning how to write well but also a movie
The movie based on the novel The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman will be released in the US on 2 September. It features a star-studded cast headed by Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz, with many Australians, including Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, in supporting roles. It is directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also wrote the screenplay, and has already been nominated for this year’s Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, which will run from 31 August to 10 September.
Re-reading The Light between Oceans recently, which was one of my top reads of 2013, I was able to focus entirely on analysing the author’s writing skills – an even more powerful means of learning how to write well than reading a novel for the first time, which I discussed in my recent blog post WHY YOU LEARN WRITING BEST FROM READING.
Reading The Light between Oceans can inspire your learning about writing in four major respects:
- Evoking place
I will explain why the novel shines in each of these respects:
The Light between Oceans is set in two major locations in Western Australia: the small island of Janus Rock, where protagonist Tom works the light house and lives with his wife Isabel, and Partageuse, a small coastal town nearby, where they met and where Isabel grew up. Even though both places are fictitious, they are extremely well evoked.
With regard to Janus Rock, Stedman focuses on the physical – rendering geography and flora and fauna with specific detail and the use of all five senses so vividly that the reader is there with the characters, hears the sounds they hear, smells what they smell, taste what they taste and feel what they touch. She also skilfully conveys the atmosphere of the island, exposed to the weather as it is, employing similes and metaphors to make the writing beautiful.
Here are three examples:
The currents hauled in all manner of things: flotsam and jetsam swirled as if between twin propellers; bits of wreckage, tea chests, whalebones… The light station sat solidly in the middle of the island, the keeper’s cottage and outbuildings hunkered down beside the lighthouse, cowed from decades of lashing winds.
Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerised by the drop to the ocean crashing against the cliffs directly below. The water sloshed like white paint, milk-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a blue undercoat.
On clear summer days, Janus seems to stretch up tight to its tiptoes: you’d swear it’s higher out of the water at some times than others, not just because of the rising and ebbing of the tide. It can disappear altogether in rainstorms, disguised like a goddess in a Greek myth. Or sea mists brew up: warm air heavy with salt crystals which obstruct the passage of the light.
With regard to Partageuse, Stedman conjures not only the geography, flora and fauna, but also the milieu of the town and the community living there at the time The Light between Oceans is set: 1926. She evokes the timber cutters and the shop keepers, the high school principal, self-made men and poverty-stricken women, with their behaviours and attitudes to fellow community members, the church, and Australia’s war enemies, the Germans.
The Light between Oceans is one of few novels that I like for its plot. Stedman bases the story on a major event which creates a moral dilemma for the protagonist and causes him inner and outer emotional conflict throughout the novel.
The novel’s protagonist is Tom Sherbourne, recently returned from the war. Other major characters include his wife Isabel and Hannah, a young woman Tom meets on the ship which brings him to West Australia and who becomes his nemesis years later.
After his return from the war, Tom joins the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service and begins with a number of relief postings at lighthouses throughout Australia. The war has affected him profoundly, and his characterisation relies to a great extent on his inner thoughts and emotions:
On the Lights, Tom Sherbourne has plenty of time to think about the war. About the faces, the voices of blokes who had stood beside him, who had saved his life one way or another; the ones whose dying words he heard, and those whose muttered jumbles he couldn’t make out, but who he nodded to anyway.
On the ship which takes him and other former soldiers to West Australia to take up his post as lighthouse keeper of Janus Rock, he rescues a young woman from being raped by a fellow soldier. After he has ordered the soldier out of the cabin, he drapes the woman’s dressing gown over her shoulders and says:
Must have got an awful fright. I’m afraid some of us aren’t used to civilised company these days… Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.
Prior to his final journey to Janus Rock he meets Isabel in Partageuse. She later becomes his wife and moves to the island with him. Throughout the novel Tom is revealed as a quiet man whose inner life governs his actions. He is a man moulded by his past, yet doesn’t want to talk about it, not about the war, his parents nor any other aspect of his past. He fobs Isabel off every time she asks him about his past, but his thoughts return to the war, to his parents, so the reader learns more about him than his wife.
Tom is shown to take his responsibility about the lighthouse keeper’s logbook very seriously, ‘he enjoys the luxury of stating a simple truth,’ and that is one of the major causes for his constant moral and emotional dilemma and continuing conflict with Isabel at the heart of The Light between Oceans:
You could kill a bloke with rules, Tom knew that. And yet sometimes they were what stood between man and savagery, between man and monsters. The rules that said you took a prisoner rather than killed a man. The rules that said you let the stretchers cart the enemy off from no man’s land as well as your own men. But always, it would come down to this simple question: could he deprive Isabel of this baby?
And when Tom does take action, this action will change the fate of all the characters in the novel forever.
Books on the writing craft often recommend that writers jump straight into the middle of a conversation rather than start at its beginning. The Light between Oceans provides a strong example of the benefits of doing so:
“Zebedee.” Isabel looked at Tom with a poker face, her mouth twitching just a touch at the corners.
“What?” asked Tom, pausing from his task of rubbing her feet.
“Zebedee,” she repeated, putting her nose back down in the book so that he could not catch her eye.
“You’re not serious? What kind of a name–”
Tom and Isabel are expecting a baby. Beginning this conversation with ‘What shall we call it?’ or the like would have been boring. Instead, the conversation begins with a name, and a very unusual one at that. The quaintness of the name jolts the reader as much as Tom.
At the same time, the dialogue underlines each of the character’s primary qualities – Isabel’s humour and feistiness and Tom’s seriousness – as well as the dynamic of their relationship.