Sunday, July 4, 2010

What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

This powerful novel of love and hate, obsession, and the candle of hope shining a tentative light through the dark night of despair takes place largely in the anxious, feverish years of World War 2. It takes the form of a long letter written by Wyatt Hillyer in 1967 to the now adult daughter he barely knows.

Obsession has left two ugly scars on Wyatt's life. When he was seventeen his father and mother both committed suicide the same evening by jumping off separate bridges in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Though they no longer loved each other, both Mr. and Mrs. Hillyer had fallen in love with their beautiful next-door-neighbor, a switchboard operator and aspiring actress.

In the wake of the scandal generated by this "Sordid Love Triangle" Wyatt left Halifax to live in a quiet small town with his Aunt Constance and Uncle Donald and their daughter, the "ravishing" Tilda. But under their roof an obsession of a darker, uglier sort rears its ugly head. Uncle Donald becomes increasingly obsessed with the war news, specifically the German U-Boat attacks in the Atlantic. And when Tilda falls in love with and marries a German student, Hans Mohring--a genuinely good German who left his homeland with his family when Hitler came to power and could not have served in the army even if he had wanted to due to a heart condition--innocent Hans becomes the face of the enemy to Donald as well as other locals. When Constance is killed when the ferry she is traveling on is torpedoed by a German U-Boat Donald goes mad with grief and murders Hans and Donald, half in shock an stunned into obedience, helps his uncle dispose of the body.

Donald is sent to prison for life, but Wyatt, as an accessory, is given a lighter sentence. After he is released, there is a tense truce between him and the cousin he has always been in love with. And, one night, they come together and a child is conceived, the daughter Wyatt will address his letter to.

I read this book in a single day. Though Wyatt is a rather unemotional narrator, the story is nonetheless gripping from start to end. I was particularly haunted by the prejudices and abuses genuinely good and innocent people suffered during the war years just because they were from Germany. One scene in particular affected me. A man who operates a record store and gives Hans discounts in exchange for German lessons is overhead speaking German by a Canadian soldier browsing in the shop, the soldier, mistakenly believing the shop owner is a German, later returns to the shop with others and savagely beats this man and destroys his shop.

Though this novel was given to me by the publisher to review and not one of my own personal selections, I am so glad I was asked to do so as this is a book I might otherwise not have chosen and thus would have missed out on a very thought-provoking bittersweet book about the power of love and hate.

Just a closing note regarding content, those who might be concerned by the love triangle between Wyatt's parents and their beautiful neighbor, which leads to the double suicide, need have no concerns about sexual content; this is not a graphic, "hot" or "juicy" read. This book is written as a letter from a man to his daughter, so there are no descriptions of sexual encounters. Wyatt even draws a discreet veil over the one night he spent with the love of his life, Tilda, that resulted in the birth of his second great love, their daughter, Marlais.

1 comment:

librarypat said...

Sounds like a good exploration of the darker side of human nature and how good people can make truly bad choices.
Thanks for the review.