What is Left the Daughter
Howard Norman
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Buy *What is Left the Daughter* by Howard Norman online

What is Left the Daughter
Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover
256 pages
July 2010
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Told in a singular narrative voice, Norman’s novel opens as Wyatt Hillyer writes an impassioned love letter to his daughter Marlais, telling her how his mother and father leapt from separate bridges in Halifax one wintry evening back in 1941. Seething with anger and stupefying bewilderment, it’s pretty clear to seventeen-year-old Wyatt that his parents no longer love each other.

Deploring his circumstances and finding himself callously orphaned in all of a single hour, this resourceful young man goes to live in the seaside town of Middle Economy with his Aunt Constance and Uncle Donald, accepting Donald’s apprenticeship making sleds and toboggans. Wyatt’s days are soon given over to the use of steel bridges and brackets and linseed oil as he toils away industriously in Donald’s workshed behind their ramshackle house.

Wyatt takes occasional breaks for tea and scones at Cornelia Tell’s bakery in the center of the town. This romantically unavailable man enigmatically falls in love with Constance and Donald’s adopted daughter, the ravishing Tilda. Wyatt finds himself completely smitten with her green eyes, her lovely mouth, and her slightly tilted smile, recalling the words of his favorite poet John Keats: “she was too much beauty.”

Wyatt attends to the every wish of this feisty, spirited girl obsessed with obituaries, mesmerism and death. Every fact of her upbringing and nature is a revelation for him until the arrival of Hans Mohring, a German philology student. Handsome and possessing a wonderful open smile, Han’s accepts Tilda’s offer to stay with her in Middle Economy. Hans puts a spanner in Wyatt’s intentions, perhaps even derailing for good Wyatt's romantic modus operandi.

This one action will change the lives of Wyatt and Tilda while also encapsulating the heart of the Canadian nation at war. The accompanying drama and fallout will consume much of the town of Middle Economy. Even as Wyatt tells himself he has a fighting chance with Tilda, Donald watches Hans with a mistrustful eye, the German boy’s fawning over his precious daughter cranking his suspicions up. Perhaps Hans is in reality a spy or a saboteur, deliberately descended by the enemy into their very midst.

While his central character isn’t that interesting, more of a passive observer in much of what transpires, Norman mixes the collateral damage of war with a town coming apart. The boys come home in coffins along with U-boats and ferry disasters, the war broadcasts, Hitler and death and the Allied ships suddenly lost at sea. There’s a nagging sense of life being off kilter as Donald fanatically listens to the war bulletins on the radio, “sporting a shorter and shorter fuse.”

Racing over the years “like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river,” Wyatt's reminiscences are evocative, as are his memories of the haunting coasts of Canada, the world of Halifax Harbor, the wild dark skies and the gulls buffeted by the wind. Wyatt is ultimately a participant in a crime that is his punishment and his salvation, yet his devotion to Tilda shines though to the point where all her grief, sadness and anger is reflected in this impassioned and emotional plea to his daughter, a message of forgiveness and the ineffable power of love.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2010

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