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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-02-11
- Reviewer: Staff
Narrator Helen Anstruther, “going on eleven,” is the relentlessly charismatic and wry star of this stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin (Unfinished Desires). In the summer of 1945, in the mountains of North Carolina, Helen is trying to make sense of the world since her beloved grandmother’s death. When her father leaves to do “secret work for World War II” in neighboring Tennessee, this becomes much more challenging, and Helen, motherless for years, is left in the care of 22-year-old Flora, a delicate and, Helen might say, hopelessly effusive relative. Helen has grown up in a rambling old house that once served as a home for convalescent tubercular or inebriate “Recoverers” under the care of Helen’s physician grandfather. For a precocious girl who has lost everyone who’s ever loved and known her, the house becomes a mesmerizing and steadfast companion. Though Flora initially appears to Helen as little more than a country bumpkin, their time together profoundly transforms them both. Godwin’s thoughtful portrayal of their boredom, desires, and the eventual heartbreak of their summer underscores the impossible position of children, who are powerless against the world and yet inherit responsibility for its agonies. Agent: Moses Cardona, John Hawkins & Associates. (May)
A child of grief and ghosts
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.