Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book review: What Is Left the Daughter, by Howard Norman

Addressing a lengthy letter to the beloved daughter who's long been absent from his life, Wyatt Hillyer reveals his very personal story of wartime discrimination, murder, and passions requited and unfulfilled.

After he is orphaned in bizarre fashion following his parents' suicides – his mother and father were having separate affairs with the same attractive neighbor – 17-year-old Wyatt leaves his family’s home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to live with his Uncle Donald and Aunt Constance in the small town of Middle Economy. There he becomes an apprentice to his uncle, a crafter of sleds and toboggans, and falls headlong for his adopted cousin Tilda, a striking young woman with an unusual capacity for empathy. The year is 1941, and war penetrates Middle Economy predominantly by way of the media. As his wife worries about his state of mind, Donald papers the walls of his work shed with newspaper clippings of U-boat sinkings of Canadian ships and listens, with ever-increasing obsessiveness, to radio reports about the war.

Despite his overwhelming attraction to Tilda, something that his understanding Aunt Constance picks up on readily enough, Wyatt steps aside with only minor sarcastic grumblings when Tilda falls in love with Hans Mohring, a German university student. This "enemy" presence in Middle Economy is met with placid acceptance by some and less charitable reactions by others.

A quiet sort of tale about a quiet sort of place, one might think. Indeed, after the dramatic opening sequence, the story unfolds in methodical fashion for the first little while. The daily happenings along Canada’s eastern seaboard are laid out in pitch-perfect prose and with an abundance of homespun detail: eating cranberry scones at the local bakery, listening to Beethoven records on the gramophone, and watching the churning sea from the safety of the wharf. And so it's almost with a shock that, nearly a third of the way in, the pacing quickens, as does the novel's strong historical sense. The war hits very close to home, making us realize that it’s been overshadowing the story all along.

Howard Norman is an American writer, but elements of his novels mesh more closely with classic elements of Canadian literature. The characters’ wry sense of humor helps them take the edge off serious situations, and their open-minded outlook on the world sits comfortably with their appreciation for small-town living. However, in the heightened atmosphere of wartime, prejudicial attitudes come to the forefront, and all it takes is one pointed act of violence to tear up the fabric of one's existence.

Wyatt’s honest and forthright narration lets us envision simultaneously the young man he was in the ‘40s, with all of his bewildered romantic yearnings, and the older, resigned man he has become two decades later. Norman’s quirky characters can’t help but capture our interest, and his compact style requires only a few well-chosen scenes to illustrate their personalities. Moreover, thanks to his protagonist, who tenaciously forges ahead despite everything, this novel about a life and family marked by tragedy never succumbs to melancholy itself.

What Is Left the Daughter was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July at $25.00 (hb, 243pp).

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