A number of times, I almost downloaded this book to either read or listen to (the audio version), but the number of less than 3 star reviews had me faltering. Last evening, my husband, in his channel surfing, came across the movie version and said, “I think you might like this.”
Set on the lonely, remote Janus Island off the coast of Australia, this story chronicles the sad journey of a young couple, Tom Sherbourne and his gutsy wife, Isabella. Tom is the lighthouse keeper, and Isabella is willing to sacrifice literally all contact with society to be his wife (the supply boats only drift in quarterly). Their heartbreaking love story illustrates their devotion to each other, and their fruitless quest to bear children. In the movie, Isabella has suffered her second, late-term miscarriage and is tending to the grave of her second, dead child.
She hears a baby’s cries on the wind and turns to see a lone rowboat drifting toward shore. When Tom investigates, he discovers the occupants number two: a screaming infant, and a dead young man.
With the baby snuggled in his joyous wife’s arms, Tom is torn with a terrible moral dilemma. He knows he should report the incident, so the child’s rightful family can be found. He chooses instead to bury the unnamed man, and allows his wife to claim the child as their own. All seems well until, at the christening of their baby at the mainland church, Tom witnesses a young woman sobbing before a gravestone. It bears the name of a man and a child, lost at sea. The dates coincide with those when the tiny boat drifted ashore Janus Island.
It seems that the child’s father was German, and the family obviously anti-German. This was the 1920s. Since he was shunned by the mother’s family, she was at risk of being disowned–from a wealthy, influential family. The father then set sail in a tiny vessel with his infant daughter. It is never explained why the father took this drastic measure, what he died of, nor how on Earth his daughter survived.
This movie raises a number of disturbing moral questions. Was Tom Sherbourne right in claiming the child as his and his wife’s own? The real mother assumed her daughter, along with her husband, had died at sea.
(Spoiler Alert) When Tom sends a letter, then the rattle that he found in the boat along with the baby, to the real mother, she knows the truth. Tom opens up a can of worms that ends up with him in prison, accused of murdering the child’s father. His wife is forced to give up the little girl, now four years old. Nobody has to explain how this transfer of families–at this innocent but cognizant age–affects an innocent child. Isabella loses not only her baby, but her husband as well.
A mournful tale exploring the true definitions of right from wrong, this movie left me sad and unsettled. Personally, if I had been Tom Sherbourne, I would have kept my mouth shut and raised the child as my own. His wife would not have suffered the ultimate heartbreak. The child’s real mother, never knowing the truth, would have moved on. She was onshore, in the mainstream, from a wealthy family, and had the ability to start over. Isabella, alone on an island with no one but her husband, did not have that same chance of bouncing back.
And never did.
Question: why was the real mother’s family so desperate to retrieve a child whose father they denounced for his heritage? Were they willing to “forget” the child’s lineage just because it was their granddaughter?
In short, this story opened up a seeping wound in my conscience and my heart that will probably not heal for awhile. Am I glad I watched it?
No. I would be like Isabella. I would rather go on not knowing the truth. For sake of her family. For the child’s sake. For the sake of all involved.
Claire Gem is a multi-award winning author, as well as a professional book reviewer. You can find out more about her at http://www.clairegem.com