This intriguing novel juxtaposes two modern stories with one historical one; two families and two tragedies linked by the larger tragedies of colonialism and climate change.
In Canada, Michelle Stewart is still overwhelmed by grief after the accidental drowning death of her son Dylan — so much so that a year later she is unable to connect with her husband or her two surviving children or move forward in any way.
On an island in Vanuatu, a world away, Rebecca Tabe and her husband David are also grieving the loss of their son — their infant, Ouben, died after being unable to get adequate medical treatment for an illness after a devastating cyclone disrupted transportation, communication, and health care on their island.
What links these two families is that several generations earlier, Michelle’s ancestors, William and Josephine Stewart, came to the Tabe’s island as Christian missionaries. In the flashback historical chapters, we see their arrival and impact on the island through the eyes of a young woman named Faina who is an observer and participant in the tragic end of this missionary experiment. In the present day, David Tabe reaches out to Michelle Stewart and invites the Stewart family to come to the island for a ceremony of reconciliation. Every member of both families is impacted by the encounter, especially the Stewarts’ surviving teenage son Zach, who has been torn apart by conflicting emotions around his brother’s death. However, the author never loses sight of the fact that this is more than just a story about two families’ personal experiences of grief and loss. This is highlighted in a devastating scene where Rebecca gets angry with Michelle and points out that the loss of Rebecca’s son is considered by most people to be far less of a tragedy than the death of Michelle’s child — that the deaths of children in developing countries due to poverty, inequity, and and the unequally distributed effects of climate change, are considered acceptable losses by most people in Western countries.
This is a story that presents beautifully detailed and believable sketches of all its many characters, while at the same time posing big questions about culture, colonialism, and what “reconciliation” really means — as well as intimate personal questions about how we cope with and attempt to move on after terrible losses. It offers no easy answers. This was a very compelling read for me.