Extract from first chapter of The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman for assignment two
On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below. Isabel sprinkled more water and patted down the soil around the rosemary bush she had just planted.
“…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” she whispered.
For just a moment, her mind tricked her into hearing an infant’s cry. She dismissed the illusion, her eye drawn instead by a pod of whales weaving their way up the coast to calve in the warmer waters, emerging now and again with the fluke of their tails like needles through tapestry. She heard the crying again, louder this time on the early-morning breeze. Impossible.
From the side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an edgeless carpet below the cliffs . On days like this it seems so solid she had the impression she could walk to Madagascar in a journey of blue upon blue . (198 words)
The Light Between Oceans is M L Stedman’s first novel. Set in Australia, it won several prizes including the Australian Indie Awards for Best Debut Novel and Book of the Year. Following a close reading of the opening three paragraphs of novel, this essay will offer a personal interpretation and explore the themes of time and place, whilst also examining the plot, structure, character, use of language, and narrator.
The novel has an omniscient narrator, giving the reader a wide view as this voice knows all that is happening in the story. The title of the novel refers to the light from a lighthouse on the island and the Australian lighthouses at that time were staffed by single men or married couple who spent solitary months at a time. The plot so far is with the protagonist, Isabel, on the cliff edge tending a new grave with a small cross. She hears crying and dismisses it as her mind playing tricks and allows herself to be distracted by a group of whales. When she hears the crying again, once more she dismisses it as “ impossible”, distracting herself again by looking out at the sea. This seems to speak of a grieving woman and I wonder what it is she seeks.
The first chapter heading states that the year is 1926. It is an early morning in late April and by the description of the Indian Ocean and the Great Southern Ocean the reader knows that the setting is the western coast of Australia. From this I now also know that it is autumn in the southern hemisphere. I enjoyed reading and finding my way to that fact through the information given rather than it being obviously stated. There is a sense of solitude and space and perhaps some danger. The protagonist, Isabel, is at the cliff’s edge of an island. Although there is a blue sky …”a mirror of the ocean below…”, and the sea seems “ solid”, this apparent peacefulness is not reflected in Isabel who is at a new grave of a child. The atmosphere feels unsettled with the tension between emptiness and open spaces and fullness of emotion. The season ( autumn) also suggests a fullness before a loss.
In these opening lines there is powerful religious symbolism which I found useful as ways of creating a context for the story. The day the protagonist is kneeling at a newly made cross is described as the day of the “miracle”. She is sprinkling water on a newly planted rosemary bush and whispering The Lord’s Prayer . The specific lines mentioned are “…and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” .and suggest that there may be some tension between good and evil in the narrative, and a moral dilemma to be faced with a background of Christianity.
I found the rosemary an intriguing symbol with several meanings. The botanical name for the rosemary plant is Rosmarinus officinalis, which means “rose of the sea,” and sometimes interpreted as “mist of the sea” In religious symbolism the Virgin Mary laid her cloak on a rosemary bush and the flowers turned blue. More recent folklore gives us” rosemary for remembrance”. All of these symbolise the importance of rosemary in the story but perhaps even more interesting is that rosemary is specifically used on Anzac day in Australia to remember the fallen soldiers .
Later in the novel we learn about the antagonist as a survivor of WW1, but in these early lines Isabel is the only character. She has possibly buried a baby, and there is a sense of her distraction, sadness, and perhaps a fantasy of leaving the place where she is by “ walking to Madagascar” across the ocean . She does not trust what she heard when twice there was a sound of an infant crying. From this I surmise that the grave did hold an infant as she felt her mind had tricked her, that her own child was dead and could not be crying.. Her mistrust could also indicate that she did not trust herself or is in some way untrustworthy. When reading this I felt sympathy for Isabel and before knowing the character in any depth , I was prepared to like her.
The theme of water mentioned in each of the three paragraphs brought to mind emotions and overwhelm. The possibility of drowning in emotions. I felt there was also something of a theme of loss and escape. Isabel distracted herself by looking out to sea and watching the whales moving up the coast. She knows that they are moving to warmer waters to give birth, almost as if she is in the cold water and without a baby. Then she fantasises about the oceans looking like “an edgeless carpet” and that she could “walk to Madagascar”. She is on an island which feels remote and perhaps she wants to leave. There is a related theme of blue in the skies, ocean and the blue of the flowers of rosemary, creating a vastness, space and perhaps emptiness.
I found the language created a sense of looking back, reflecting, almost with nostalgia particularly the opening sentence “On the day of the miracle…” “A single fat cloud snailed across the sky…” slows the pace. Using “snailed” instead of the more usual “sailed” caught my attention and literally slowed down my reading. The use of the letter w in alliteration “…whales weaving their way up the coast to calve in warmer waters..” , gives a gentle, slow sound unlike the use of the letter c which is harder. The use of s in “…seems so solid ..” describing the sea, has an onomatopoeic effect of soft waves against the shore.
The fluke of the whales’ tails “…like needles through tapestry…” was a little confusing to me. The metaphor describes the smooth dipping in and out of the water but my mind conjures up a tail that is not needle-like, but with two parts and splayed. The sky “…stretched above the island like a mirror of the ocean below …” immediately surrounded me with a peaceful blueness. The repetition of ”…blue upon blue..” contributes to that peace. The metaphor of the two oceans stretching “…like an edgeless carpet…” indicates the stillness of the day. I wonder if the two oceans represent the protagonist and the antagonist.
The longer structure of the sentences generally continues the sense of nostalgia and slow reflection, except for the one word sentence of “Impossible”. The use of this sharpness was almost as if Isabel had harshly shaken her head to dismiss the thoughts that may have arisen as she heard the crying of an infant. I am curious to know more about those thoughts and why she dismisses them.
In summary, I found Stedman’s physical descriptions of the place and her use of symbolism set a strong scene when juxtaposed with the protagonist’s unsettled frame of mind. There is a substantial sense of place, with the vastness (…”all the way to Africa…”) of space which sometimes feels empty and sometimes full. The tension between these opposites is woven through the text. The poetic devices work to create a mood and slow pace. I feel it sets the scene for what is to come and invites questions about the crying, the grave, and how the narrative might unfold.
Random House Books, Australia
Commentary from writer’s diary
I am curious about creating meaning from marks, making a story which is then re-created in the mind of another, and with marks ( words) that might invoke meaning other than that imagined by the writer. Does this matter? Is it important that the reader understands precisely what the author means? In non-fiction this would be the case, but there is something very exciting about the reader making their own interpretation based on their own life experience, background and education. If there is an unspoken understanding of the basics of a story, following a recognisable structure and an identifiable plot, then the mood, symbolism and emotional qualities may differ depending on the reader.
Yet reading the article entitled Tradition and Individual Talent by TS Eliot, I feel moved by the idea that excellence in crafting a poem goes beyond the personality or the background of the poet. It is as if the poet empties herself of all that stands between her and expression, and the reader receives it in the context of his own life and experience. I am pondering this.
How does one know if a piece of writing is good? Is all writing structured, following the rules of Aristotle’s first four elements? Are poetic devices carefully contrived and do I need to write well with wordy alliteration, or examine my work minutely like some sort of scientist with a magnifying glass? When I read Dylan Thomas, or better still, listen to his own reading of his work, I am astonished by the skill and beauty of the language and the ease with which it flows. And I see the devices, structure and care.
The role of the reader excites me. Why would this be any different to the role of the viewer at a gallery? This is one of the aspects of this part of the course which I have enjoyed most. When I question my assumptions and find a new path opening, it gives me great hope that I might continue to learn and grow.
In writing the essay for assignment two, I attempted to make my own writing more interesting. I considered the reader ( tutor) and aimed for clarity as well as hopefully well-structured sentences . Although initially I intended to follow a plan for the essay, it seemed that it ended differently to how I intended. Tutor feedback will help me determine if this is a problem. (405 words)
I found this a fascinating experience. As an avid reader I now see how much I miss when reading too quickly. In less than 200 words, Stedman offered a wealth of information, setting the scene and already inviting the reader to make judgements about the protagonist.
I feel I have read this extract closely, several times, and found that which I sought. I am still not clear on how to present the plot. Whereas I think I understand that the plot is a series of linear linked events, I am unsure that I have presented that correctly. Looking for the poetic devices helped me to understand why some language seems to flow more than others. My own great pleasure in poetry can only be enhanced by this way of reading.