They say M.L Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans sparked an international bidding war when it was presented as a manuscript and the film rights have already been sold. Which by all accounts isn’t bad for a first novel set in a small rural community in Western Australia post WWI. It’s not bad for any novel, really, so I searched two bookshops for it with neither author nor title to guide me and as fate would have it managed to find it.
As it turns out the fuss is about a couple who find an infant washed up in a dinghy on a remote island off the coast of WA. The husband is the lighthouse keeper, the wife grieving a series of devastating lost pregnancies and a recent stillbirth. The supply boat visits four times a year. Dramatic events ensue, impossible decisions are made, hearts are broken.
While some aspects were a little lost on me, I really enjoyed the depiction of a man, community and indeed country recovering from the losses of World War I. Stedman cleverly weaves her very small scale human drama into the wider political context of the time, and the aftershocks of a world so divided and traumatised. That individual heartbreak, lost children, lost loved ones, lost hope neatly parallels the recent history of the world in the novel, and the impossibility of ever making full recovery of the heart.
I confess the hype had me a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it was an enjoyable read. I raced through it in the space of a return Perth-Brisbane-Townsville flight and shed a few tears on the last page. Perhaps I read it too fast. Being particularly un-maternal myself, I suspect I didn’t really emotionally grasp the initial decision that drove the narrative, though I am increasingly reading it as a metaphor for seeking new growth after the war, like new shoots on the leaves after a fire. The problem with having such a positive response to a first novel is nothing can really live up to it. Particularly so with this novel with its understated style, seemingly effortless prose and ever so subtle crafting of place and character. I suppose the finer the craftsmanship, the tinier the stitches, the more they disappear into the fabric of the garment. I am intrigued (and a little worried) as to how the film will look.
Immediately after The Light Between Oceans I stumbled upon Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, also set in a seaside community, on Rollrock Island. Rollrock seems an isolated, almost haunted, place; where Misskaella is resident sea witch, able to coax a seal to take human form and step out of its seal skin. Embittered by taunts and cruelty all her young life she exacts a significant fee for creating such a seal-woman for a local man to take as his wife. Soon, the village falls under the spell of the dark, finely built sea women and gradually each man pays for one of his own.
If you’re a little creeped out by the above description then rightly so, it is creepy. The publisher’s blurb on the back of the book suggests we will find it a tale of desire, revenge, heartbreak and the unforseen consequences of all-consuming love, however I more saw it as about commidification of women and marriage. The enchantment Misskaella weaves is like a mass media that values women only for their appearance which itself is endlessly airbrushed into some warped perfection. The seal-wives’ appeal is their beautiful, docile nature in comparison to the fierce, red-haired land-women. The sea-wives are effectively sold into slavery and, after the land-women flee to the mainland, the whole town is complicit in keeping the wives hostage. This doesn’t make the men happy, however and the community labours under the burden of the sea-wives’ longing for the sea.
If The Light Between Oceans took a while to grab me but then held me to the end, Sea Hearts was the exact opposite. I really enjoyed Lanagan’s prose, a lilting old-world seaside style that made me think of Wellington boots, strong milky tea and driving winter rain. I found myself in the world of the novel from the first page, but I became increasingly disinterested as the novel went on. Lanagan shifts the first person narration between characters at irregular intervals and some of the changes lost me. I found it difficult to marry the Misskaella who narrates the first half of the story with the bitter sea-witch she becomes and some of the impossible choices made by the men who take their sea-wives just rang false, even given the implausibility of the entire story. While reading the cliche “if you love something, set it free” kept ringing in my ears in an irritating loop.
Though they’re wildly different, it is interesting to compare the two novels in terms of their setting and themes, their isolation and landscape of where the ocean meets the land, the place that is the edge of the human world. Both stories have obsession, loss and betrayal at their core but are told in different ways. Stedman’s offering, being the more human tale without promise of magic and love from the sea, is somewhat more subtle in its rendition. Whether that would endear it more to a reader than Sea Hearts probably depends on your taste; personally while I think the enchanted slavery of Lanagan’s novel will haunt me for some time, Stedman’s is probably the one I’m more likely to recommend and reread, if just to get more out of its minute detail.
Just as an aside, I bought and read both of these novels the basis of having heard of or from their authors, Stedman in a newspaper and Lanagan who I follow on twitter. (Actually, finding an author on twitter is my new favourite thing and I am more inclined to read their novels when I do.) Knowing how hard it is for authors to get publicity, particularly new authors, that we blog, tweet and talk about novels is significant. So let’s talk. Have you read either of these? Does witchcraft and heartbreak move you more than ordinary human betrayal and real life, geopolitical trauma? What other novel would you suggest be compared or discussed alongside these two. Let me know.
The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman: four stars.
Sea Hearts, by Margo Lanagan: three stars.