First-novelist Powning, with the deliberative touch of a nature writer, offers a slowly unraveling tale about a widow’s way of rejoining the world.
Husband Tom died of a heart attack at 52, and Kate is a year into her widowhood. Alone in a lovely old house on Canada’s maritime east coast, her two children grown and gone, she feels her heart swollen with memories she wants to share with Tom. Delving into antique hatboxes her sister has brought out of storage, she begins to read the crumbling letters of her grandparents, who lived in Shepton, 600 miles south. She learns that her grandfather Giles first actually loved and courted her grandmother’s sister, Jonnie, before Jonnie died in the 1915 diphtheria epidemic. In between solitary winter evenings reading the letters, and days working at the local library or teaching piano, Kate becomes reacquainted with an old friend of the family, Gregory Stiller, who has moved back to the province after the suicide of his son. Gregory seems troubled by his own reminiscences—Kate is a part of them—and tends to drink too much. His urging Kate to get out of the house and join him in athletic nature-pursuits always ends badly, and being with Gregory only makes her miss Tom more. Meanwhile, her childhood memories of Shepton become surpassingly beautiful, and she recognizes that her nostalgia is “a feeling we all share . . . the need for such a place,” and that her own home will become a Shepton for her children. Powning (Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Loss and Love, 2000, etc.) has a delicate and lyrical touch, but the story advances by the minutest increments, Kate directly addressing her husband throughout. By mining the old letters, she’s brought out of herself, but the letters themselves are tediously mundane, and Kate emerges only very subtly and skillfully altered.
A debut that requires great patience to detect changes in light and mood.