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Book review: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

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It’s hard to describe what’s good about the novels of Howard Norman. They don’t have intricate or exciting plots; they don’t cover broad canvases; they don’t unleash bold metaphors or breathtaking insights. They’re actually quite small in every sense.

But the New York Times, People, Entertainment Weekly and other popular publications didn’t review Norman’s latest just because it’s short (always a plus in the mind of a book critic). I also don’t think they gave What Is Left the Daughter their coveted coverage purely because the part-time East Calais resident has literary bona fides — awards and acclaim for his previous novels and translations — or even because the novel starts with a sensational event that makes for a nice hook.

Food writers use the term “mouth feel” to convey the difficult-to-describe sensations of eating and drinking — taste, texture, aftertaste. Norman’s novels have great word feel. A longtime student of indigenous oral literatures, he gives his prose a rhythm that may tempt you to read it aloud even if you tuned out your English profs when they started droning on about the “music” of language.

Norman’s is a music of plain speech, of people who don’t waste words even on tragedies. The narrator of What Is Left the Daughter is Wyatt Hillyer, a man who claims to know little of words, and the book is an extended letter to the 21-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen in years. Addressing his daughter directly, Wyatt promises to tell her about a “terrible incident that I took part in.” But he starts off by relating a terrible incident he didn’t take part in — the deaths of his parents. Both in love with the same woman, they jumped off two different bridges in Halifax on the same day when their son was 17.

This is what TV writers call a teaser. Starting with a bang has become received wisdom in the fiction world, too: Open your “literary” novel with an accident or a murder or a bizarre love triangle plus a double suicide, and casual readers will pick it up.

Those readers may be disappointed by what happens to Wyatt next. He attends the funerals. He leaves school. He watches the woman his parents both loved — a pretty neighbor, but not exactly a femme fatale — board a ship. He drives to Middle Economy, a modest village on the Nova Scotia coast, to apprentice with his uncle, who makes toboggans. He chats with a woman who makes scones and with another woman who does stenography. He falls in love with his cousin, Tilda.

Since Tilda is adopted, the relationship poses no obstacle to her potential union with Wyatt. The fact that she’s just met a tall, handsome, well-spoken student does. But Hans Mohring, the object of Tilda’s interest, is a native German. In 1942, on Canada’s eastern coast, that’s a dangerous thing to be — even if your family fled from Hitler. War is never far away. Dogged by grim news reports of U-boats attacking passenger ferries, Tilda’s father smashes his prized Beethoven records and leaves the pieces on his daughter’s bed. Worse is to come, and Wyatt will be complicit.

The matter-of-fact, stoic, Canadian way in which Wyatt relates all this may not endear him to readers. At first glance, his parents’ deaths seem scarcely to touch him. But the novel’s clunky title has a purpose. It comes from a parable Wyatt hears at church, in which an old woman tells her son to stop lamenting the sadness of his own life and reach out to his estranged offspring. “And what is left the daughter?” she asks him.

The question resonates several times in the novel. What did Wyatt’s parents leave him when they made their sudden exits? (Basically, a void — a realization that he’d known nothing of their inner lives.) What does Wyatt have to leave his daughter? Can he give her something better than the terrible sense of emptiness he was given? And finally, what does the past ever leave the present? What, for instance, does the generation that lived through World War II leave for its children and grandchildren?

Norman doesn’t address those last two questions explicitly. This is a no-nonsense historical novel in which the author doesn’t try to force past-present parallels or impress us with the extent of his research. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to read the account of how Wyatt’s uncle gradually withdraws from his wife to devote himself to atrocity reports on his staticky radio without thinking of the people who became news junkies after 9/11, each new development fueling their fear and anger.

Nowadays, we tend to complain that the media bring us too much information, but Norman reminds us that too little information could also be terrifying. “[T]he whole time people have their stomachs twisted in knots worrying that there’s some terrible news they don’t yet know about,” Wyatt tells his uncle. “Like there’s a terrible secret about to be told them.”

At a time when Hitler’s seamen sometimes sneaked ashore and mingled with Canadians, such fears weren’t outlandish. What Is Left the Daughter is partially a tale of the dangers of judging by association — and here one may think of the current flap over building American mosques.

But, to Norman’s credit, he doesn’t simplify things. Most of his rural villagers are willing to give Hans Mohring the benefit of the doubt, even as they acknowledge, with typical bluntness, that it’s not easy. Take this monologue from Cornelia Tell, the scone maker and one of the novel’s most memorable characters, as she rents the German a room:

There’s Canadian citizens at the bottom of the sea off our province, yet you’re welcome to stay as long as you want, Hans Mohring. But you should know that every time I look at you, I might think of the bottom of the sea. That’s not because of anything you yourself did, mind you.

The novel has plenty of ideas and motifs — the “bottom of the sea” and all it conceals and sometimes reveals; words as power; war as a corrupter of souls. But what will stay with readers are Norman’s own powerful words — all the stronger for their seeming ordinariness. One passage, a murder confession, is as hard to shake as certain dark pieces of Shakespeare. And there’s a character’s observation that the war requires people to invent new prayers: “So much sadness and not always knowing what to do about it.”

But then, as the acerbic baker Cornelia Tell points out, “[W]ho in their right mind would ever say a person was supposed to be happy? In your life happiness is either cut to your length or isn’t.” Sometimes all that’s left us is the strangely invigorating power of putting such truths in words, and Norman does so with both wit and courage. Like Tilda, who reads a whole Katherine Mansfield collection aloud to Wyatt because “[h]er stories are too excellent to summarize,” he keeps us listening.

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