Godwin (Unfinished Desires, 2009, etc.) examines the intricate bonds of family and the enduring scars inflicted by loss.
In the summer of 1945, 10-year-old Helen Anstruther has just lost Nonie, the grandmother who raised her after her mother, Lisbeth, died when she was 3. Helen’s father, the discontented, hard-drinking principal of the local high school in Mountain City, N.C., needs someone to stay with her while he does “more secret work for World War II” in Oak Ridge, Tenn. So he asks her mother’s 22-year-old cousin, Flora, and, when one of Helen’s best friends comes down with polio, insists that the pair remain at home to avoid the risk of infection. It’s a bad idea: Weepy, unbuttoned Flora seems like a dumb hick to snobbish little Helen, who at first makes a thoroughly unappealing narrator. But as Godwin skillfully peels back layers of family history to suggest the secrets kept by both Nonie and Lisbeth (some are revealed; some are not), we see that Helen is mean because she’s terrified. She’s already lost her mother and grandmother, she’s afraid her polio-stricken friend will die, and another close friend is about to move away—after delivering some home truths about how “you think you’re better than other people.” Helen got this trait from Nonie and both her parents, we realize, as Flora’s comments gradually reveal how cruel Lisbeth was in her eagerness to leave behind her impoverished background. As usual with Godwin, the protagonists are surrounded by secondary characters just as fully and sensitively drawn, particularly Finn, the returned soldier whose attentions to Flora spark Helen’s jealousy and prompt the novel’s climax. Not all mistakes are reparable, we are reminded, but we learn what lessons we can and life goes on.
Unsparing yet compassionate; a fine addition to Godwin’s long list of first-rate fiction bringing 19th-century richness of detail and characterization to the ambiguities of modern life.