The book is one sweeping and heart-wrenching read: it is shorter than my usual chunky novels, but it is also powerfully engaging. Reading this books was a very unusual experience from a start. I first used my Audible credit to listen to the book, and although the speaker’s tone was properly chosen to convey the feeling of inevitable loss and subdued pain, it was also a very disappointing choice of narrator who chewed and swallowed some of the words in longer sentences. For a while I was toying with the idea of not reading the book at all, but eventually settled for an old traditional way of reading the novel, a tree book. And I am happy that I have persevered with this novel.
This novel explores and combines many topics, the most salient ones are the parental love, loss, anti-war themes and personally for me the question of faith.
Nowadays with the diversity of moves how to engage a potential reader into a plot, the book does not have an inexplicably unusual beginning. It is definitely not the conventional classical beginning with the setting and gradual introduction of its characters, but it can not be called highly original. It starts with the moment that will change the life of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne for ever. It is then followed by a flashback that provides an explanation why this moment of finding a baby in a boat together with her dead father and the subsequent decision to adopt the child without informing the authorities turned out to be a disaster and a blessing that warped the life of the Sherbournes.
Virtually every character in the novel has a sad story of their own: Isabel with miscarriages and a history of still birth, Tom with his alienated and estranged father and brother and a past military history where he still had to kill to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, Isabel’s parents who lost their first children when they were small and two more sons during the military campaign, Hannah who lost her husband and thought she had lost her daughter as well, Ralph, who lost his three-year old son, the community of Partageuese with the families that had lost their fathers, sons, brothers during WWI – a book populated by people whose lives were distorted by those losses. That is why the child in the boat who is found alive and is brought to the shore of a small island of Janus is symbolically so important for Isabel and for us, readers.
The story also delves deep into the nature of one of the most powerful feelings – mother’s love and maternal instinct for her child, and it reminds me of the Judgment of Solomon. It is the most painful and emotionally powerful part of the novel: the descriptions of mother’s delights are numerous and wonderful. The true miracle of raising a new life, the exploration of its fullness, its completeness, and its magic, the striking grief that shatters and undermines the purpose of human existence when one is forcefully torn from this lifeline of parental love and happiness.
Despite the tender and expansive exploration of the maternal instinct, the most sympathetic character in this novel is Tom who preserved his integrity despite the blows of life, and whose love saved Isabel from her impending emotional devastation and insanity. He is the one who accepts that not everybody is happy in this life, happy in the way they dream and want to be. Life force is powerful and crucial. Life is a crucible, a torrent, a maelstrom that small specks can not control and have to submit and go with this devastating torrent that might give and might take away.
The final question that troubled me while I was reading the novel is the question of faith. As a humanist and an agnostic, it is very noticeable that characters always prayed to find peace and to seek answers to the questions that were devouring them. It never ever crossed their minds that someone/something, no one/nothing with the capital G, if he/she/it existed as he/she/it portrayed would have never caused so much sufferings and emotional pain. God did not give them the answers that Life posed: wars, injuries, pain, human loss on all sides. People invented God in the meaning they wanted to explain all these horrendous things that were happening to them because it is always easier to blame something/somebody when you have no control over it. This led to the atrocious behavior within the community when the whole community hated Frank for his pseudo-German origin. It was done in their sincere belief that they were doing it in good name and in good conscience, being totally delusional in the truth of their own, in the morality they believed was the true one. The same hatred overwhelmed them when they learned about Tom Sherbourne – he turned him into a scapegoat, an abusive husband, even a murderer when he was only trying to protect Isabel. Even for Isabel it took a while to accept human love instead of religious love. The duplicity of this community (and many, many others), the bigotry it harbored, the zeal of hatred – I was really torn between the feelings of revulsion and understanding that it is just a work of fiction with the underlying messages
It also partially explains why my sympathies are mainly with Tom – he is the closest among those characters to the understanding that Life is not about giving, it is also about taking and hurting, its discontinuity, its alienation, the perpetual pain of human existence. He is the one who subconsciously embraces the philosophy of existentialism that helps him to survive, to stay sane, to love Isabel, to forgive, to move on, to suffer and still live.