Norman (best known for The Bird Artist, 1994) scores again with this gripping account of a family ripped apart by obsession and murder.
In format, the novel is a long letter written by Wyatt Hillyer to Marlais, the daughter he scarcely knows, to explain the “terrible incident” that has kept them apart. But Wyatt must start with something equally terrible. In 1941, when he was 17, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, his parents jumped to their deaths from separate bridges; they were unhappily in love with the same woman. Wyatt leaves Halifax to live with his Uncle Donald, Aunt Constance and adopted daughter Tilda in their small town, and becomes apprenticed to his sled-making uncle. The hoped-for sanctuary is anything but. Wyatt has exchanged his parents’ erotic obsession for his uncle’s obsession with German U-boats swarming beneath the Atlantic; on top of that, he is now an unhappy lover himself, yearning for Tilda. It is his rotten luck that Tilda should have fallen for Hans Mohring, a German philology student. Wyatt accepts his fate as the rejected suitor—no histrionics for him. Meanwhile the news that Constance, on a ferry, is among the latest U-boat victims, catapults Donald into madness. He murders Hans (already married to Tilda) and has Wyatt help him dump the body in the ocean. Donald confesses and gets life; Wyatt, morally innocent but legally culpable, draws a short sentence. After his release, he makes love to the bereft Tilda, just once. In time Tilda will move with their baby Marlais to Denmark, home to Hans’s parents; now, in 1967, Wyatt is making full disclosure to his grown daughter. Though himself a victim twice over, and still feeling the pain of his parents’ deaths, he has never complained. Norman has developed this brave, emotionally reticent man with great delicacy.
It is extraordinary that a story which carries such a weight of sorrow is never depressing, but Norman the master craftsman pulls it off.