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

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What Is Left the Daughter

A Novel

Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $25

"What Is Left the Daughter," Howard Norman's 10th book, is an epistolary novel about death, survival and legacy. As with most of his fiction and nonfiction, this quirky World War II narrative unfolds in Canada's Maritime provinces. Reminiscent of a classic Robert Frank black-and-white photograph, this candid, everyday portrait discloses intricate webs of wistfulness and resignation. Norman raises absorbing moral quandaries, particularly about the possibilities of forgiveness.

The narrator, Wyatt Hillyer, is orphaned on Aug. 27, 1941, when his mother and father jump off separate bridges in Halifax, Nova Scotia, because of their conflicting passions for a beautiful neighbor. Before his mother jumps, she says to the officer trying to save her: "I suppose this will be all over the radio."

Radios play a significant role in this novel, as they did in Norman's much-praised 1987 work "The Northern Lights." Radio brings the "Classical Hour" from Buffalo, N.Y.; popular entertainment shows and news reports; mounting reports about Germany's takeover of Europe. Wyatt recalls: "All told, my mother had fifty-eight radios. The sound of radio voices or music had almost nightly drifted into my bedroom, the volume turned up when my parents wanted to deafen me to their quarreling. Among her collection was a 1938 International Kadette, a white Silvertone, four different Bakelite models, and a Philco Transitone."

Precise details such as this reveal how Norman, a baby boom Jewish kid from Ohio and Michigan, savors a very particular nostalgia for 1940s WASP Canadian coastal life — as if he were channeling a memoir from a previous incarnation. Given his nuanced evocation of class, nationality and period, it's not surprising to learn that Norman trained as a folklorist. The landscape is dotted with eccentric place names such as Advocate Harbor, Diligent River, Home Settlement, Great Village and Upper Economy. Despite Norman's affection, the good people of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland come across as slightly quaint.

"What Is Left the Daughter" resonates with tropes familiar to Norman fans — aborted marriage, traumatized families and unpredictable, devastating violence. Here, Norman manages scandal and melodrama worthy of a Veronese stage within the novel's mundane frame as a marathon letter by Wyatt to Marlais, his estranged 21-year-old daughter, in 1967. The epistolary form is itself another nod to a bygone era.

In 1941, newly orphaned Wyatt moves from Halifax to Middle Economy to live with his aunt and uncle. There he discovers two great enticements — the charms of his ravishing cousin Tilda and the delicious cranberry scones made by the baker, his new fast friend, Cornelia Tell. An apprentice at Uncle Donald's sled workshop, Wyatt nurses a budding fascination for Tilda, who was also adopted into Wyatt's family. His romantic hopes are dashed by the sudden appearance of a German philology student, Hans Mohring, to whom Tilda becomes engaged.

Wyatt's life is further shattered by Uncle Donald's manic news consumption and uncontrollable outrage about German advances in Europe. He is apoplectic as Hitler's U-boats make their way into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sinking military and civilian ferries in 1942. When the SS Caribou is sunk, a resident of Middle Economy is among the 136 killed. Global hostility leads to local bloodshed. The lives of Wyatt and his second family are changed forever.

By 1949, Wyatt's world has further transformed. He has lost his aunt, uncle and cousin and has had to say farewell to Marlais, his only child, who moves to Denmark with her mother. Wyatt returns to his native city alone and becomes a "detritus gaffer" in Halifax Harbor. His story comes full circle in 1967 as gaffers are sent out to collect booty floating up from the wreck of a sunken German U-boat. During the final 18 years and 56 pages of Wyatt's letter/book, he finds some satisfaction and peace while "not allowing a single note of uncompromised sadness."

Particularly well rendered are second-string characters: Aunt Constance, Hans and everyone's godmother, Cornelia. From her place behind the bakery counter, Cornelia takes a fond interest in the lives of her customers. When a forlorn Wyatt reveals that he's returning to Halifax, she says: "I've kept this private … but before the war I used to take a bus to Halifax. I'd get a hotel room and I'd go to the cinema. Sometimes I'd go three nights in a row.… Lately I'm considering starting up again."

A modest man, Wyatt is admirably compassionate and somewhat dull-witted. He says it all when recollecting 10th grade: "[M]y grades were only average, but I felt above average in paying attention.…" This book/letter to his daughter is both an explanation about their estrangement and a legacy to her. In the end, "What Is Left the Daughter" is an unpretentious letter about the truth of their lives as far as he knows it. All that remains for him is Marlais, which leads to another parsing of the title: "What Is Left — the Daughter." As always, Wyatt's hold on family stays tenuous.

The epistolary form of this novel is a cri de coeur from an author faithful to the printed word in a time of promiscuous texting, friending and tweeting. Students today who can't write in cursive are able to e-mail across the world. The reflective, personal storytelling in "What Is Left the Daughter" reminds us of the potential beauty, intimacy and wisdom offered by two endangered genres — the letter and the novel.

Miner teaches at Stanford University and is the author of 13 books, including, most recently, "After Eden: A Novel."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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