30 Day Book Challenge: Day 1

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 1 - Best book you read last year.

According to Goodreads (which I used pretty consistently throughout the year), I gave three books 5 out of 5 stars. (This is excluding the four Harry Potter books that I gave 5 stars to - I'm not counting them since I had already read the series). These books were The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.

All of these books were really engrossing and allowed me to step into the world of the narrative very easily, which always makes the reading experience that much more enjoyable and magical. While these books explore much deeper issues than what is presented on the surface, I didn't feel like I had to analyze them too deeply to have a rich reading experience. I felt free to just experience the characters and the narrative as it came, knowing that I could put on my intellectual "English major" hat later. These kind of books are always my favorite, the kind that offer me a reading experience that exists at two levels: the first, when the book allows me to lose myself in its narrative and simply enjoy a good story as such, and the second, when the book engages my intellectual curiosity and offers me an opportunity to think about issues relating to history, human relationships, emotional experiences, death, grief, and loss, our struggle for survival, and other important questions.

Of these three, I think The Light Between Oceans was my favorite. I picked this up on a recent trip to Barnes & Noble. I had never heard of it, and I almost put it back on the shelf until I read the last sentence on the back of the book's cover and knew that I had to read this story. In sum, it focuses on a lighthouse keeper and his wife who, after losing three babies, find a baby girl in a washed up dinghy, and instead of reporting her, decide to keep and raise her as their own. Living in isolation from the rest of the world on a small island, Tom and Isabel don't stop to consider the consequences of their seeming act of kindness, and it is only years later that they have to reckon with the very real and devastating fact that they only have a daughter because another family lost one.

The Light Between Oceans had me swept away in its story from the first page. Stedman deftly weaves emotionally raw narratives from different characters, exploring questions about the past and how we reconcile it with who we are in the present, the often complicated nature of morality and how to live with and move forward with our decisions, especially when they affect others, and what it means to love someone unconditionally and truly stand by them, no matter what. Stedman gives her characters rich histories and allows them the freedom to struggle with themselves, their emotions, their choices, and their relationships. Tom is a particularly complicated and interesting character, framing every choice he makes and even his view of himself as a person with his experiences in World War I, experiences that he largely keeps to himself.

I thought that Stedman was particularly successful in showing the complexity of an issue that would be far too easy to write-off as simply "right" or "wrong." Tom and Isabel's decision is both understandable and unthinkable, and in ways that we might not imagine. One of the most poignant moments for me was when Hannah, the mother of the little girl Tom and Isabel kept as their own, elaborates on what exactly they have stolen from her when she sees Isabel with her daughter:

For the first time, the enormity of the theft came home to her. Right in front of her was the evidence of all that had been stolen. She saw the hundreds of days and the thousands of embraces the two had shared - the love usurped. She was aware of a trembling in her legs, and she feared she might fall to the ground.

-The Light Between Oceams

It is easy to understand that Hannah would feel wronged because of Tom and Isabel's decision, but this description offers a much more complicated understanding of her sorrow. This moment captures the depth of not only her anger at the injustice, but also the nature of her loss and the deep and abiding ache that it leaves in her heart. Hannah did not simply lose years with her daughter; she lost the opportunity to build a loving relationship with her, to live every day as the little girl's mother, wrapping her in her warm embrace, soothing her fears and anxieties, and loving her unconditionally. These years, these moments, and Hannah's very role as the little girl's mother have been stolen from her by Isabel.

Needless to say, The Light Between Oceans offers an interesting meditation on parenthood, particularly motherhood. Stedman beautifully and infuriatingly captures Isabel's almost primal urge to have a child, as well as her steadfast commitment to her decision and unwavering belief that she is the little girl's true mother. I also appreciated that Stedman went past both Hannah and Isabel and their desires, decisions, and struggles, making room for the more important question of what to do for the little girl caught in the middle of these two families. If Tom and Isabel had only taken an object from Hannah, the answer would have been more simple and straightforward. But they took a human being, a human being who is too young to understand the morality and consequences of their actions and how they have affected others. All that the little girl can understand is that, to her, Tom and Isabel are the only family she has ever known, and Hannah is a stranger. The painfulness of this reality is made clear time and time again, and Stedman allows each of her characters to struggle with how to move forward, not just for them, but for the little girl. 

I also thought that The Light Between Oceans addresses the nature of forgiveness well, particularly in regard to reconciliation. As with the central issue of the novel, Stedman complicates these two notions, showing that there is much space between forgiving and not forgiving and that forgiveness does not necessarily lead to reconciliation or healing. Wounds and hurts are still there and need time to heal, and the consequences of Tom and Isabel's decision have forever changed and shaped all of the individuals involved and affected. But even so, there is hope and there is a way to move forward, even in spite of seemingly unimaginable hurt. We may carry the ghosts of the past with us, but they do not have to hold us captive or define who we are. Always, always there can be redemption and freedom.

Also, I kind of really want to be a lighthouse keeper now. I think I would be well suited for that sort of quiet and simple life. Plus, think of all the time I would have to read! (Though, the book suggests that living in isolation from the rest of the world can drive people a little crazy - so maybe I'll keep my day job.)


1 comment:

  1. I seem to be a little loose wit my five star ratings. Having given then out to a few too many books in the last year. I think that the best book of the bunch though, for me, was World War Z if only because of how unexpectedly good it was. It really transcended the horror genre and was extremely immersive on the global and personal level - as it is written like a series of interviews with survivors.

    Your books sound more edifying than most of what I read this last year. And I agree that living in a lighthouse does have a sort of allure - so much more time for reading and writing (probably).


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