Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

What is Left the Daughter
By Howard Norman
Reviewed by L. Gregory Graham

Why do some families appear to attract an unusual share of bad luck and woe while others sail through life piling achievement upon achievement? The author tries to answer that question in the rocky wind swept village of Middle Economy in Nova Scotia during World War II when German Uboats patrol the waters of Eastern Canada sinking what boats they can.

What is Left the Daughter is a story of a boy marked for life by the suicides of his parents on the same day. Both jump to their deaths from separate bridges in Halifax, Canada. The story is the interplay between the heart and the mind when disaster is heaped upon disaster in the course of one young life.

Does one recover from something like that? In this case, the answer is no. His life is colored by the sepia tones of that tragedy. Wyatt Hillyer, the protagonist of the story, moves to the village of Middle Economy to live with his aunt and uncle. It is a village where the women are emotionally stronger and saner than the men. It is also a village where anyone who leaves to improve their lot in life fails. He starts a new life, makes friends, falls in love with Tilda, the adopted daughter of his aunt and uncle, is spurned, and foolishly helps his uncle dispose of the body of his murdered brother-in-law.

When he returns to Middle Economy after prison, he fathers a child named Marlais by Tilda. He loves them dearly, but Tilda and Marlais move to Denmark to live with the parents of her murdered husband.

The book takes the form of a long letter to Marlais who has decided to return to Canada now that her mother has died. Wyatt tries to explain himself, and why he has not tried to visit or even contact her for twenty years.

Self-reflection is not a strong point in Wyatt. He catalogs his long days working as a detritus collector in Halifax Harbor. He accepts his lot in life. He lives in transient hotels, goes to movies, and lives a small careful life devoid of self-improvement or ambition. Wyatt loves his daughter, but never makes any attempt to see her or contact her.

We are left with the question why? Wyatt tells us that he thinks the ghosts of his parents are with him always. They whisper in the static on the radio. Does he fear that his bad decisions will imprint on Marlais if he contacts her the way his parents’ decisions imprinted on him? Or is he merely content with the small rut of a life he has carved for himself in the rocky damp soil of Nova Scotia? Has he judged himself in some cosmic balance, and deemed that this is the only life he deserves? We never know for sure.

This book asks some tough questions, and then supplies only incomplete answers. Is Wyatt a hero in the sense that he refuses to pass on the legacy of his parents and his own bad decisions? Or is he so self absorbed in penance for his own misdeeds that he cannot reach out to his own daughter? And finally, why does he feel it necessary to contact her now that she has decided to return to Canada? Does he wish to tell his side of the story now that Tilda can no longer filter it, or before she hears it from the folks of Middle Economy?

In the end, what is left to Marlais? Her legacy appears to be a very long letter and a very timid father.

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