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The Letter

This saga of sorrow, loss, and a father’s desire to meet his grown daughter displays power — and failings

The sinking of Canadian ships, such as the SS Caribou, by German U-boats helps steer the plotline in this Norman novel. The sinking of Canadian ships, such as the SS Caribou, by German U-boats helps steer the plotline in this Norman novel.
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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In Howard Norman’s best novel, “The Bird Artist,’’ and in two that approach it, “The Museum Guard’’ and “Devotion,’’ we are led beguilingly the wrong way and into comical dead ends; only to find the wrong way is another way to arrive, and the end is not dead but opening up.

“What Is Left the Daughter’’ is not quite up to those three; it suffers more noticeably from a Norman weakness: a tendency to provide brilliant moments without setting them in a larger stream of time. It is slow getting started, and for a while the quirks tend to flail as if unsure where to belong. Midway, though, comes a scene so moving and powerful as to give them lodging.

The new novel is a confessional letter sent by Wyatt Hillyer to Marlais, a daughter he has not seen since she was a baby. Set in Nova Scotia during World War II, it starts off with one of Norman’s characteristic shock events.

When he is 17, Wyatt’s mother and father separately kill themselves by jumping off Halifax bridges because each is in love with the same beautiful neighbor. Even as explained later, Norman doesn’t bother to make the motive more than frail. He uses it as a gratuitous catastrophe that, like a drumroll, begins his parade on a note of high energy.

Wyatt is taken in by his uncle and aunt, Donald and Constance, in the inland town of Middle Economy. Donald, who makes high-quality sleds and toboggans, teaches the craft to his nephew. He is a kindly figure who gradually goes off his head listening to radio reports of German U-boats sinking Canadian ships; he moves from his house to his workshop to keep the radio going nonstop, and develops a manic hatred of all things German.

This includes Hans, the peaceable German philology student whom Tilda, their adopted daughter, brings home and marries. Wyatt, desperately in love with his entrancing cousin, is desperately jealous. When Constance, on a ferry trip to visit friends in Newfoundland, perishes in a U-boat torpedoing, Donald’s madness explodes into murder. Wyatt numbly helps him dispose of Hans’s body, his passive role made suspect by his simmering resentment. Donald draws a life sentence; Wyatt, three years.

When Wyatt gets out Tilda helps him but holds him at a chilly distance; it is broken for one night only, when they make love. The outcome is Marlais; Tilda takes the baby to live in Denmark where Hans’s parents have moved; she will die there and, as the book ends Marlais has returned to Newfoundland. Wyatt sends her his memoir and hopes, finally, to see her.

So much for the story’s main current. It is the eddies, though, that distinguish it. Some are whimsically forced: the 58 radios that Wyatt’s mother left behind when she jumped. Mostly, the special quality of Norman’s writing is his curvetting configurations of human unexpectedness; here, mostly, in the women. (Wyatt, though narrator and part-protagonist, is fairly bland.)

Constance, patient but witty under her husband’s stifling mania, rallies from the ordeal to read an Elizabeth Bishop poem to Wyatt. “A poem reaches out exactly halfway,’’ she assures him when he looks puzzled, “then you reach out halfway, then see what happens.’’

Tilda’s quirks are something more than piquantly beguiling. They come to give form and substance to a breathtaking practicality. Before meeting Hans she was bent on becoming a professional mourner; the point was to fill a need by performing grief at funerals where other mourners were lacking. Her reaction after Wyatt comes back from jail is both astonishing and logical. She hates him, she makes clear, but hatred is only a fact along with other facts: that he is the only family she has left, that she wants a baby. Moving to Denmark is a decision held in cool yet somehow endearing balance: She could have stayed and married him, she tells Wyatt, but on the whole Denmark seems more suitable.

The book’s climactic sequence, among Norman’s most oddly powerful, is the trial, held in the local library. It mixes Donald’s stark account of the killing with seemingly frivolous yet wrenching asides. Mentioning Hans’s philology studies, he is asked what the word means. Blindly, unbearably stricken, Tilda trots over with the library dictionary. And when Donald finishes, Tilda walks it back to the shelves; a quiet walk with a devastating charge.

The crowning passage is Donald’s explanation of why he killed Hans. He parses his madness with aching clarity. There was, he says, the thought of his wife’s lungs filling with water. Specifically there was her trunk, carefully packed, fished from the sea, and returned from where she never would return. And there was the radio static that accompanied the war reports he’d so obsessively listened to. Static, Constance’s trunk, her water-filled lungs. Only Norman could assemble such sorrow out of such particulars.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@ gmail.com.

WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER By Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 243 pp., $25