May 2013

A childhood of grief and ghosts

By Gail Godwin
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For 10-year-old Helen, spending the summer cooped up in her family’s crumbling hilltop manse with her late mother’s fragile cousin is just the latest indignity in a young life punctuated by loss, longing and lamentation.

In Gail Godwin’s luminous new novel, Flora, the best-selling author has once again breathed life into a child heroine, weaving a narrative that is both plaintive and charming, and above all, almost eerily authentic in capturing the linguistic patois and emotional nuances of youth during the final months of World War II. Readers who have enjoyed Godwin’s 13 previous novels, including Unfinished Desires, The Finishing School and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, will recognize echoes of some of her prevailing themes, including a small-town North Carolina setting, the enchantment of first love and, above all, the devastation of childhood abandonment.

Darkly hypnotic, mesmerizing and magical, Godwin’s latest novel is not to be missed.

While Helen has only vague memories of her own mother, who died when she was 3 years old, the recent death of her beloved grandmother, Honora, has left her paralyzed with grief, guilt and anger. After Helen’s father—a sarcastic and often soused school principal who has never recovered from his young wife’s death—accepts a summer job in Tennessee, he recruits his late wife’s cousin, 22-year-old Flora, to care for his daughter in his absence. Neurotic, albeit kind-hearted and lovable, Flora is painfully eager to please her young charge, but the prickly Helen is determined to remain aloof and impenetrable.

While this coming-of-age novel unfolds in the shape of a tragic love triangle involving Helen, Flora and a mysterious young veteran, Finn, Godwin gives a subtle nod to the Southern Gothic, giving readers a shiver or two with the shadowy presence of house ghosts known as “The Recoverers”—previous residents for whom the eccentric old manse served as a boarding house and a haven as they recovered from the ravages of alcoholism and mental illness.

Readers are sure to be enchanted by this darkly hypnotic novel. Godwin has once again crafted a mesmerizing and magical tale, inhabited by characters whose pathos will linger long after Flora reaches its hauntingly eloquent final pages.

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By Gail Godwin
ISBN 9781620401200

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