Grief Cottage, Gail Godwin’s latest novel, opens with a newly orphaned boy grappling with his mother’s fatal accident.
As his late mother never revealed the identity of his father, 11-year-old Marcus is sent to an island off the coast of South Carolina to live with his great-aunt Charlotte, a reclusive artist whose paintings of seascapes and rustic summer cottages are popular with tourists. With an empty month to fill before school begins, Marcus is engaged by the safe hatching of sea turtles as they make their arduous journeys to the ocean. But his attention is also drawn to a desolate, abandoned house—the Grief Cottage, where an adolescent boy and his parents vanished during a hurricane half a century before.
With Charlotte holed up in her studio and drinking heavily, Marcus is left increasingly on his own. He is convinced that the ghost of the dead boy is trying to contact him and visits the cottage daily, until finally the spirit reveals himself. At the same time, Marcus befriends several of the island’s most notable residents, who fill in details of the island’s history and provide context to the story of the ill-fated family.
Like Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw, Grief Cottage is less a paranormal thriller than an exploration of the psyche’s creative tactics to survive trauma. The closer Marcus gets to the truth, the more the stories of past and present merge, until the dead are able to provide answers for the living.
Marcus’ precociousness occasionally requires a suspension of disbelief as total as any faith in the supernatural. Despite that, Godwin shows she is still at the top of her craft, using the fragile link between living and spirit to illuminate a young man’s coming of age in this keenly observed, powerful novel.