When you read a novel by Howard Norman, you enter into a very particular world. That of course is one of the oldest pleasures novels afford. You lived for a while with Robinson Crusoe on his island as his only companion. Narratives before Defoe were episodes loosely strung together. Shakespeare’s plays are “worldly” in the sense we mean; Samuel Beckett’s aren’t. The sense of being in a world requires something more than immediacy. With Henry James’s novels you are in the close atmosphere of the personal relations of a couple, a group, a circle. A world needs defining limits.
The limits of the agitated world of Norman’s earlier novel The Bird Artist (1994) are those of a village called Witless Bay in Newfoundland. Not very far from it, across the waters of the North Atlantic in Nova Scotia, is the village of Middle Economy (Upper and Lower Economy on either side), some hours’ distance from Halifax. This is the world of the ambiguous personal history narrated by Wyatt Hillyer in What Is Left the Daughter, Norman’s latest novel.
Witless Bay seemed a made-up name, surely. In fact we weren’t quite sure, realizing that Norman (himself aptly named) had roamed the northernmost regions of the continent for years and knew them down to their holes and corners. So we consulted The Times Atlas of the World. And there it was in tiniest letters on Newfoundland’s eastern shore—Witless Bay.
Norman’s new novel, like The Bird Artist, unfolds spontaneously, freshly. It is alive with modest people who work at their trades or keep shops. This small, lower-middle- and working-class world possesses a surprising number of unselfconsciously, narrowly cultivated people, especially in classical music. Their speech is educated though not highly educated (democratically educated); on the fringes you hear country voices. They say things like “In your life happiness is either cut to your length or isn’t” and “My husband and I called a truce and neither slept.”
Middle Economy should seem familiar but it doesn’t. To call its economy lower-middle- and working-class is not quite right, for the village doesn’t have the class consciousness that would justify such terms. It seems a quiet, civil place. The librarian of Middle Economy, Mrs. Oleander, is thrilled to find a poem by “Miss Elizabeth Bishop” in a magazine, for “Miss Bishop” grew up “in Great Village. Practically a neighbor!” (The poem is “Casabianca,” about love that is inarticulate and can only “stammer” when it tries to utter itself out of the flames of passion—“Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck/trying to recite ‘The boy stood on/the burning deck.'”) Middle Economy is not an idyllic place. There are perilous goings-on inside its limits, perilous, as is often the case, because of love. There are perils of a different kind too—offshore sinkings of ships by German U-boats. The time is the early 1940s, the war has crossed the ocean, and Canadians are being killed. The paths of the two perils will cross.
What Is Left the Daughter consists of a long letter written by Wyatt Hillyer to his daughter Marlais, whom he last saw when she was six. It begins:
Marlais, today is March 27, 1967, your twenty-first birthday. I’m writing because I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven’t told you. I’ve waited until now to relate the terrible incident that I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen.
Wyatt’s use of the word “incident” for the brutal murder of the just-married husband of Marlais’s mother Tilda, in which he himself was involved, is clumsy and ingenuous, as Wyatt and his entire letter are. So many “I” narrators never come alive, sometimes because the author wants it that way, as with Scott Fitzgerald’s sideline narrator Nick Carraway. Wyatt is pale but alive.
He is, he tells us, an orphan, and was orphaned suddenly, sensationally: his father and mother both jumped to their deaths from different bridges in Halifax on the same evening. One after the other, two policemen come to tell Wyatt (seventeen years old) about each suicide, in their cops’ way. It is funny if also grim. Father and mother were both deeply in love with their pretty neighbor Reese Mac Isaac, who loved them both. This most unusual isosceles triangle was impossible and Wyatt’s parents elected to end it. Passion doesn’t often keep in mind the children. There is also a love triangle in The Bird Artist, and this present novel has a second one after the tragic first. Norman, it seems, is drawn to the woe that is in love.
Wyatt is adopted by his Aunt Constance and Uncle Donald, under whose roof lives another adoptee, his cousin Tilda, with whom he had already fallen in love before he became an orphan. His love for Tilda is intense, everlasting, and, though never offered, nevertheless plainly rejected. Tilda falls in love with Hans Mohring, a German student of philology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, over the course of a single bus ride, and Wyatt must watch as the two rent a room in the village and immediately start living together. Wyatt is the boy Elizabeth Bishop calls “Love,” standing on the burning deck trying to recite “The boy stood on the burning deck” while his “poor ship went down in flames.” He doesn’t understand “Miss Bishop’s” poem and is instructed by his aunt, who dearly loves him, in how to meet a poem halfway with your own poem that you make out of the poet’s poem. “The way I see it?” she tells Wyatt. “A poem reaches out exactly halfway, then you reach out halfway, then see what happens.” The same could be said about reading this novel.
Uncle Donald makes sleds and toboggans and Wyatt learns the trade. Donald avidly follows the war on the radio as he works, listens to Beethoven, and begins papering the walls of his workshop with clippings about ships sunk by German submarines in Canadian waters. U-boats attacked virtually unopposed in the first years of World War II. Infuriated by the German attacks, he is hardly cordial to his daughter’s German lover. He smashes all the recordings of his beloved Beethoven and deposits the fragments on the bed his daughter shares with Hans.
The story edges near to diatribe in its horror of insensate patriotic fury. Here the author seems ingenuous himself. What is lacking is a hard, knowing sense of war and its furies. There is a similar lack of firmness in Aunt Constance’s easygoing advice on how to read a poem—making a poem of your own out of your lack of understanding of the poem before you. “If your thinking’s willful and generous toward a poem,” she says, “the poem’ll be equally those things back. As for meaning, it’ll mean something different to each person.” Make up anything you please, but the poem on the page remains the poet’s and you must study to possess it. Well, Aunt Constance is kindly and she speaks in character.
Tilda and Hans are obsessed with death. Tilda, like Wyatt, has lost both her parents and she has composed obituaries since adolescence for imaginary deceased. The young, good-looking girl continues to be fascinated by death and decides to take up the occupation of paid “professional mourner,” a Nova Scotia custom that provides for those who die without family. Her family is horrified but she is not of the persuadable kind. She is very good at mourning, wailing and moaning as if possessed so that she collapses on the grave. It is truly felt emotion, and you feel it. Hans for his part dictates a running obituary of himself to Tilda, adding to it as occasion offers. Tilda and Hans seem a happily morbid pair. Nevertheless it’s strange. Why are they both possessed by death? We’ve no idea.
The “terrible incident” in Wyatt’s letter’s first line is Uncle Donald’s murder of Hans. Tilda had married Hans just that day and Hans had bought new copies of the records that Donald had smashed (after piecing together the fragments of the originals to see what they were). Meanwhile, returning from a christening in Newfoundland, Aunt Constance goes down with the ferry torpedoed in the Cabot Strait. The news drives her husband into madness. Bringing the new records to Donald as a son-in-law’s offering, what he calls an “amends” (for being German), Hans is greeted by his new father-in-law with a steel toboggan runner brought down on his head. Wyatt punches Donald and strikes him—and watches paralyzed as he shoots his son-in-law. As “in a dream” the nineteen-year-old, commanded by his uncle, fetches a tarpaulin. Far out in the Bay of Fundy they launch Hans’s body in a toboggan into the sea.
When Wyatt and Hans had walked through the cold evening rain to Uncle Donald’s workshop and to the German youth’s death, Hans had embraced Wyatt and told him that in just such weather he and Tilda had taken refuge in the library and there conceived a child. If Hans had had the slightest suspicion of Wyatt’s love for Tilda, his speaking so would have been most dishonorable and insidiously cruel, but we don’t know. Nor do we know how Wyatt felt a minute or two later when the toboggan runner split Hans’s skull. Wyatt surely suffered from Hans’s words but we aren’t told so. Did it influence the stupor he fell into? Why hadn’t he gone on punching and striking his uncle, why didn’t he raise a cry?
What are we to make of this mixture of love and murder and war? Norman suggests nothing. He does not seem to believe in explanations, or at least not psychological explanations. Psychology has its various essential uses but is it now a dead end for the imagination, for original imaginations? The novel—that is, the letter—is written in language that suits the character of Wyatt: plain, clear, simple with an occasional flight of vivid metaphor. It is very pleasing in its directness. Wyatt has a story to tell and he goes ahead and tells it. It has a pleading note, for he is writing to his adored child long absent in Denmark, whither her mother had removed her.
After turning themselves in, uncle and nephew are tried before a magistrate brought in from Halifax. There is no jury; the villagers gathered in the library are jury enough with their running commentary and outbursts of laughter and anger. The easy, familiar character of a village is very pronounced in the improvised courtroom. The accused plead guilty: the uncle is sentenced to prison for life, Wyatt for three years.
A great strength of the novel is the women. First the benign ones: Wyatt’s Aunt Constance and his steadying, sustaining, middle-aged close friend Cornelia, who keeps the bakery shop, a village dropping-in place. His aunt converses with an intelligent, quiet irony, Cornelia with a sharper one. The women are an opposition party of kindliness against the indignant and uncharitable, the party always in power. Wyatt has irony too. As silent as he is about his love for Tilda he will aim an unobvious remark at good- natured Hans, his rival—advising him, for instance, to be mindful of his heart condition and try not to “black out before you have another of those cookies.” But Hans is not his rival, because Wyatt never steps up to the plate.
Unbenign is Tilda. She is cruel toward Wyatt, very remote, cloud-covered; her sun only comes out to pour down golden rays on Hans. Wyatt will dote on her nevertheless. An eternal mystery, eternal heartache: X dotes on Y who dotes on Z. Heine has a poem about it: “It is an old, old story” but new as new can be when you are X and your heart is broken.
Wyatt returns from prison after three years and is met at the bus station by Tilda, “against all logic” as it seems to him. “What other family do I have left,” she says. But she won’t live in the family house with somebody she hates and stays instead in the rooms above the bakery that she and Hans once shared. Wyatt goes back to sled and toboggan making, working hard as he had before. In Middle Economy all work is morally as well as economically defining: you do good work or you are no good. Wishing to do something pure and clean, Wyatt labors without limit on a long-owed toboggan. He doesn’t seem guilt-ridden; it is love for Tilda that’s on his mind. Still, after several years of her widowhood he won’t declare himself to her.
Tilda has gone back to mourning, now privately for her dead husband. One night at 1:20 AM Wyatt’s phone rings. It’s Tilda from the local library, where she spends her sleepless nights, calling to tell him that two crows have got in. Wyatt: “Tilda, are you asking me to drive over?” Tilda: “I’ve told you about these crows—do what you want.” He throws shoes at the crows, the library is turned upside down, they become hilarious. She reads to Wyatt, who has never been read to before, her beloved In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield, from start to finish. Again in the library, again in a night of pouring rain, Tilda conceives a child. She had miscarried with Hans’s. Marlais belongs to Tilda first; Wyatt accepts that he must live and work and love the child on the side. It is her recompense. How can she not hate him who abetted her one-day-husband’s murder? How can she not thank him for Marlais, conceived in true love, his and maybe, however unwillingly, hers?
She is recompensed; he is rewarded, for his doggedness—for “love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,/even the swimming sailors… And love’s the burning boy.” Wyatt has briefly possessed his great love and possesses, to love forever, his adored daughter. Tilda, however, departs with the child to live in Denmark. Wyatt writes to Marlais: “Your mother was the love of my life. I was not the love of hers. You became the love of both of ours.”
He goes away to Halifax to live in a seedy hotel. For want of better he becomes a “detritus gaffer”—as strange a title as “professional mourner” but not as strange a kind of work. As part of a crew he goes about the Halifax harbor fishing out of the water all the preposterous stuff, the believable and unbelievable junk—lampshades, exotic potted plants, and even a dachshund set adrift in a wooden crate—that impedes the way of the ferries and ships coming and going. This gaffing time in Wyatt’s life is a delight for the reader: the comradeship of the crew who are so plain, so ordinary, so interesting, the women members who are good fellows and also overflow with women’s kindness. Norman blends the ordinary with the ordinary here and throughout the novel so that the ordinary, deepening, acquires more than ordinary weight—for example, the pages in which Aunt Constance proudly demonstrates to Wyatt the trunk she has packed so expertly, complete with “a little room for a new purchase…just in case,” for her visit to Newfoundland—the trunk that will be fished out of the waters of the Cabot Strait.
Reese Mac Isaac reenters the story thanks to her job as the switchboard operator at Wyatt’s hotel. At her insistence they speak briefly on the phone, at first awkwardly; then at length; then they meet. It is an extraordinary situation. Reese doesn’t defend herself; she is brave as truth and answers Wyatt’s hard questions. Together they visit his parents’ graves. She is a living character, original and strong.
The outport world of Middle Economy is common, daily, democratic. The warm breath of benign women supplies its atmosphere. There is wickedness—Wyatt was wicked in his passiveness and receives a light sentence for a most serious crime. Uncle Donald is no villain, poor fool, but demonstrates again that stupidity is as bad as villainy. We are inclined to miss an Iago in the novel. There is a kind of ethos of softness in What Is Left the Daughter. If Shakespeare has an Iago, that is a strong hint that one should have something at least comparable in one’s depiction of the world. For Norman is an ambitious writer and depicts the world with its living charm and its easy murderousness, its strangeness and its strength and weakness of love.
Wyatt is a real presence, but indistinct around the edges. He is the one that does the talking, he’s likable, and we are inclined to see things his way. In the novel’s final pages, Wyatt receives the news of Marlais’s return to Canada. At last recovered! His daughter will fill the post of town librarian. He now has an address to which to send his letter. But he always had her address in Denmark. Now at last he will meet his beloved child. But in all the long years of separation he never went to Denmark to meet her (for which he has his excuses). He doesn’t know her, she doesn’t know him. He was passive in his love of Tilda, passive in his submission to his uncle in casting Hans’s body into the sea, and passive as an absent father. Wyatt knows this very well; the title of the book, taken from a parable of paternal failure, says it:
An elderly woman listens to her son hold forth about how much heartbreak, sour luck and spiritual depletion can be packed into a life. But talk as he might, the man from the parable fails to address the one thing his mother is most curious about. “What of your daughter?” she asks. “Have you seen her? How is her life? Do not doubt that wonderment may be found when you find her again.” Turns out, the man hasn’t seen his own daughter in ages. “Rain, wind, hunger, thirst, joy and sorrow have visited her all along,” the woman says. “Yet her father has not.” She listens more, all the while experiencing a deeper and deeper sadness, until finally she says, “And what is left the daughter?”
But he hopes: surely his great love will sweep Marlais and himself up upon a happy shore! But who is Marlais? He doesn’t know. What does she feel and think? He doesn’t know. We don’t know. Much in this arresting novel is unusual in its locale, its people, and their behavior. Wyatt at the conclusion, while taking everything into account, yet allows himself the flushed excitement of the happy ending he is sure he is about to share with his daughter. We for our part find that it’s a question.