“That house on the hill. That girl. Children are like bombs that will one day go off.”
These brief sentences, written soon after turning in her first book for publication, inspired Gail Godwin’s Flora, finally brought to life after many years hidden in a notebook. Godwin is not the same writer she was when she started out nearly 45 years ago. For one, she’s not afraid to refashion a book anymore. “It used to kill me when I had to drop a book, but sometimes I found that I could pick out pieces of it and put it in another book,” she says. And so these three sentences evolved into a novel after Godwin realized that she knew what those “bombs” were.
It’s the summer of 1945, and 10-year-old Helen is none t
oo p leased to be cooped up in her weathered house all alone with Flora, her late mother’s cousin, who’s in charge while Helen’s father is away on a “special project” for World War II. Helen’s grandmother has just died and, after a recent polio outbreak, the girls are forbidden to leave the property. All Helen has is Flora—but she doesn’t like her. To Helen, Flora is emotional, immature and unsophisticated. “It would take her years and years—until she was an older woman—t o see what Flora had that was so rare in the world,” Godwin says. “There are very few of these people around who are pure at heart.”
Flora is unique among Godwin’s list of best-selling novels: It’s the first she never showed to anyone else while she was writing. “It gave me a peculiar intimacy with the material,” she says. She had determined how many days the girls had together: “I tried to go day by day so that we could follow Helen’s opinions of Flora as they changed.” And so the story develops at this deliberate pace, as Helen (who narrates the story as an older woman) examines the doings o
f the summer, building up to the events of the story’s climax—occurring just after the bombing of Hiroshima—that would change her life immediately and forever.
At that age, “You’re coming into your knowledge that you have powers and that you can influence people…you can make them do things, but you haven’t finished your cognitive growth and you can’t project what the consequences might be," says Godwin,
who was able to remember well the feeling of being 10 years old. To create Helen, she had to reacquaint herself with that adolescent mindset. “[Helen’s] aware that she’s growing and changing, but she’s still a little girl…which was fascinating to write; I liked being inside her. It gave me a feeling of raw power.” Godwin’s goal for the novel was to find the essential in her material. The detailed recounting of that summer is important, as the older Helen narrates in order to provide a truthful account of this tumultuous period in her life and do justice to those involved. She strives to capture their essence.
Godwin is proud of Flora, “because none of [the story] happened to me,” she says, “but it’s true in an essential way.” The story is entirely Godwin’s own—she wrote it over two years, showing her manuscript to no one. She followed her narrator’s journey over a lifetime, recalling the feeling of adolescence and intimately navigating the perspective of a woman looking back on her younger years.
Helen’s journey in Flora, from adolescence to reflective narrator, is not unlike the journey of an emerging writer. When Godwin first started out, she struggled to make herself write. “Now, if I don’t write on a day, I feel robbed. It’s become such a part of my mental exercise,” she says. Recently, Godwin was on tour with fellow Bloomsbury author Samantha Shannon, who started writing her book The Bone Season (out later this summer) at the age of 15. "Yo
u’ve got the alpha and the omega here—the first and the last,” Godwin says. With 18 books under her belt, Godwin has learned a lot over her writing career. She has a few regrets: She let one of her book titles be changed. Unfinished Desires was supposed to be The Red Nun. She also let a magazine editor turn one of her stories into something completely different. With these experiences in mind, she has a few notes to share with young writers.
These suggestions apply to Flora as well: Young Helen would be grateful to older Helen for keeping a thorough record of the details. After a lifetime of reflection, Helen may have some regrets of her own that she might want to own up to. However, Helen’s narrative is controlled. It’s stripped of most emotion in order to reveal the elemental details of that summer: the moments that endure over time. In writing their story, Helen does justice to Flora and her own youth. It is exactly what it needs to be—there is nothing extra. Godwin achieves the ultimate goal she sets for young writers a
nd also for herself: “Try to get down to the essential.”
Chelsea Langford is the editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.