Godwin at her compelling, thought-provoking best

Flora
Gail Godwin Bloomsbury, £16.99

New Yorker Gail Godwin has been a finalist for America’s National Book Award three times and on the evidence of her latest novel she is certainly gifted at finding the heart of her characters in a telling and moving fashion.

The main risk she takes in this novel is her narrator — 10-year-old Helen — is abrasive, precocious and often not likeable. And yet the risk pays off. Helen’s mother died several years earlier, her grandmother dies as the story begins. And her father is about to leave to take part in confidential work as part of the American war effort in Oak Ridge. He recruits his wife’s cousin, Flora, to look after his daughter for the summer at the end of World War II.

Flora is a sweet, trusting, gently eccentric young woman hoping to take up a teaching job. If she had been the narrator of this story it is unlikely it would have worked so well. She may have been too sweet, too innocent and too florid. Instead we experience Flora through the pitiless eyes of a bitchy little girl and we are left to worry she will survive the summer with Helen.

Running through the book is a series of letters that Helen’s grandmother wrote to Flora in the five years before she died. In them Flora receives worldly wisdom and advice which she takes to heart. Helen finds the letters and — jealous of the intimacy Flora has had with her grandmother — secretly reads them. One of the pieces of advice is people we trust can be treacherous.

It is unclear what will befall Flora but there is a tension that grows from the beginning of the narrative. The reader could well feel protective towards this lamb left to tend to a young wolf. In that sense Godwin’s novel is slightly reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement although it is in no way derivative. Again like Atonement, it is clear that the events of this summer will overshadow the rest of Helen’s life.

Given that the story ambles along calmly like a balmy, sunny day, it does hit a high narrative gear in the final section when events fairly whip along. And it is not only the events at the house that tumble into overdrive, the role Helen’s father has been playing in the war also becomes clear. Here the theme is reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons where the father’s conscience only gradually extends to take account of the collateral damage of war. There is a subtle and ambivalent sense in this novel of the consequences of actions.

Godwin writes so well we can see with great clarity what she wants us to see. Twice in the book there is a feeling she is forcing the issue by telling us what to feel a little too bluntly. Unfortunately, one of those is on the first page, the most awkward page of the book, even allowing for the narrator’s voice. Later she almost spoils a beautiful scene by telling us it was redemptive for both Flora and Helen. We know! The writing was bang on! She didn’t have to go and interpret it for us after setting it out so well.

But a few overwritten passages are not enough to take from the achievement of some vividly created characters impacting hugely on each other’s lives by the tiniest of actions.


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