Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What remains.

Howard Norman's What Is Left The Daughter is a slim, punchy novel that does a remarkable job at conjuring up an indiosyncratic community and its singular inhabitants without veering off into caricature.

What is Left is a combination memoir/letter, written from Wyatt Hillyer to his daughter Marlais on her 21st birthday, after having been separated from her since her toddlerhood. Although What is Left packs a lot into a relatively short work (murder and World War II, for starters) it's really about love triangles, or more accurately, the impossibility of some loves.

What is Left begins with one such triangle, when a teenaged Wyatt is orphaned after both parents commit suicide within the same hour, in the same way, over the same woman, a glamorous switchboard operator and aspiring actress named Reese Mac Isaac. The news is sensational in Wyatt's tiny and conventional Nova Scotian town.

After his parents' suicides, the not-quite-adult but very pragmatic Wyatt leaves high school and moves in with his aunt and uncle and their adopted daughter, the beautiful Tilda, whom he promptly falls in love with. He joins his uncle's toboggan and sled business and lives quite contentedly with his aunt and uncle, until World War II breaks out.

Located as it is on the Bay of Fundy, Wyatt's new home of Middle Economy (located between Upper and Lower Economy, respectively) is imperiled by the German U-boats roaming the waters and targeting civilian and military ships alike. Wyatt's uncle becomes increasing obsessed with the U-boats, which reaches cataclysmic proportions when Tilda falls for and marries a German university student and a ferry carrying Wyatt's aunt, Constance, is attacked and sunk by a U-boat.

The book's second triangle, between Tilda and her husband, Hans, and Wyatt, is best summed up in Wyatt's admission to his daughter that although Tilda is the love of his life, he is not the love of hers.

What is Left is filled with odd little details - Tilda's obsession with the Highland Book of Platitudes and eventual career as a professional mourner; Wyatt becoming a detritus gaffer in the port; his mother's collection of radios, etc., but Norman skilfully draws an odd, isolated little community without making it seem forced or too deliberate (Anna Lawrence Pietroni, take notes).

The novel ends with the potential of a reunion between Wyatt and Marlais dangling like a tantalizing thread, but Norman doesn't give the reader the satisfaction of knowing whether Marlais and Wyatt will reunite. Nevertheless, this little novel, with it's almost Salinger-esque prose, is smartly crafted and disarmingly engaging.

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