At five o'clock in the morning on April 11, 1967, Wyatt Hillyer is finishing a letter to his daughter, Marlais, a letter started a few weeks earlier, on her 21st 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 lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, working as a detritus gaffer, and has not seen Marlais since she was two. His decision to contact her, and what he wants to explain, form the core of Howard Norman's latest novel--a story of love and sorrow, written with a quiet intensity that stuns with its power and tenderness.
Wyatt begins with how he became a sled and toboggan crafter in the village of Middle Economy, Nova Scotia. When he was 17, his mother, Katherine, and his father, Joseph, leapt from separate Halifax bridges into rough waters under wild, dark skies. Both were in love with their next-door neighbor, a switchboard operator at the Lord Nelson Hotel, "as lovely and mysterious as any woman you'd see in an advertisement for perfume in the Saturday Evening Post." After the scandalous suicides, Wyatt's aunt and uncle, Constance and Donald, invite him to live with them, where Wyatt can apprentice in his uncle's sled business. Before he leaves, Wyatt asks an elderly neighbor, Mr. Lessard, to take care of the house; Mr. Lessard acquiesces with one provision--he wants to be able to turn on all 58 of Katherine's radios at the same time, to listen to Buffalo's Classical Hour, as it might be the closest he'll get to experiencing a full orchestra in person. "I'll only do this once... I won't stand for any godforsaken Vivaldi. You don't have to worry about that.... Vivaldi won't break in. Not on my watch." In the midst of tragedy, Norman inserts a strain of plainspoken humor that runs throughout the book, giving quirky voice even to cameo players.
Wyatt moves in with Constance and Donald and their adopted daughter, Tilda, with whom Wyatt falls in love--Tilda, with her unruly black hair and severely upright posture, tilted smile and tart tongue. When he sees her, he feels like "he just came in out of a cold rain into a warm kitchen."
He sets his habits quickly: breakfast in the kitchen at six, work until 10, then a drive in his DeSoto to the bakery owned by Mrs. Cornelia Tell for a cranberry scone and coffee, a comforting food ritual that will last his life, dispensed by a comforting, no-nonsense woman. Four days a week he comes home to Lenore Teachout--another memorable character--sitting in his aunt's kitchen, listening to the radio and practicing her stenography, which is her passion. While in Halifax for college, she wrote down over 1,000 pages of overheard conversation in her journal. When Cornelia asked her if that didn't annoy people, she replied. "Aren't you grateful someone took down all those actual conversations in the Bible?"
Meanwhile Donald obsessively listens to war news, staying up all night for radio bulletins, pasting news articles about U-boats on the shed walls, cursing the radio static. He says, "I have to keep up with the war. Some choose not to." Donald is becoming more and more agitated as the days go by; he knows things are getting worse by the hour, and he's worried about the submarines.
By the spring of 1942, Wyatt has some of his own customers, and Tilda is moving ahead with her chosen career: professional mourner; she is gravely serious about mourning, throwing herself on the ground and wailing. Her parents are concerned, but Donald says, "If Tilda chooses to publicly demonstrate she's got that much additional sadness to give away--plus there's the wages, however modest," then so be it. But they ask her to go to Halifax to be hypnotized first, to learn why mourning holds such an attraction. She agrees, and comes back on the bus with a surprise: Hans Mohring, a German philology student at Dalhousie University, who had moved to Denmark with his parents. Hans moves into an apartment above Cornelia's bakery and commences spending his days with Tilda.
One evening after dinner at the Hillyers', while playing a word game, Hans spells out "ravishing," saying, "Its definition is--well, basically, it's Tilda. Don't you agree?" Wyatt does agree, silently, and quits the game for a walk to the wharf, where he reflects on his illiteracy in matters of the heart. "I felt Tilda was ravishing, but I hadn't known how to use that perfect word."
As 1942 progresses, Wyatt feels a sense of disquiet, of life being off kilter. Uncle Donald loses his temper, and his closest connection seems to be with the radio; he's started missing dinner and he never listens to his gramophone records--no more Beethoven; in fact, all his records have disappeared. The radio is on all the time--in the shed, the kitchen, the bedroom--with bulletins, bleak news and static. Constance is packing for a trip to a christening, and Wyatt is thinking about joining the Royal Canadian Navy. She cautions him not to do it to prove he's brave, but "there's reasons to sign up. Those U-boats have gone to such a great effort, haven't they? Come all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to bring war to Canada. Let alone marauding around inside Donald's head of late, eh? Who's to make those U-boats regret their efforts if not our Navy?"
But Wyatt's plans to join the RCN go terribly awry. In mid-October the ferry Caribou is torpedoed; as news of deaths filters through and suitcases and trunks wash up on shore, Donald breaks completely, with terrible consequences for everyone. As Wyatt goes on to explain his life over the next 25 years, he recalls his uncle saying, "Never sully the sea, or someday it'll come back at you, tenfold." The sea off the coast has been sullied, by the war and by the consequences of grief and rage.
Howard Norman has captured the fear and suspicion that World War II brought to the East Coast perfectly, as news reports circulate and the silent and spooky threat of the U-boats is ever-present. It's an especial fear for the coast dwellers; for them, "lost at sea" has an immediate and haunting resonance. Norman says many of his books are about extremely difficult courtships with much unrequited love and unbalance. In What Is Left the Daughter, love and courtship are even more off-kilter because of the endless dread and worry and the inability to get facts. Donald talks about the day he heard about the ferry sinking: constant updates and bulletins, with "static static static--and then 'Axis U-boats plying their grim trade, no common humanity'--then more static. It can be like that with a radio, but that day it seemed like outright cruelty, [and that afternoon] there was just too much goddamned static, sir." The cacophony of static, news and violence becomes overwhelming.
Norman also captures the speech and texture of life in Nova Scotia with gentle humor and deft description ("streetlamps were like frozen pale explosions in the mist"). When Tilda leaves Wyatt and Hans for a moment, saying she'll be back in a jiffy, Wyatt says to the philology student, "Sit in the car with me, Hans, I'll explain 'jiffy' to you. I could tell you liked that word. See how I'm getting to know you?" For a self-professed unlearned man, Wyatt clearly has a way with words and an interest in them. In the village, he feels that a house with books has a concealed spirituality, because so few people left their books in plain sight--"reading was a private enterprise, when it occurred, especially of novels." Or, "True, no dictionary definition of love might apply to what happened between us that night, but my choice is not to consult a dictionary." The people of Nova Scotia are plain-speaking, with a laconic wit: "Let's listen to Bach's unaccompanied cello suites.... They make some people lose the will to live, but they cheer me right up." And Norman's women are purely remarkable--loving, forgiving, headstrong and wise. They hold the world together.
As Wyatt composes his letter to another important woman, his beloved daughter, Marlais, he thinks he has sometimes "raced over the years like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river." Still, during those years, he has savored every bit of knowledge he's received about her. Two Sundays ago, Wyatt had stopped in at Harbor United Methodist Church in Halifax, and heard an ancient parable that ended with an elderly woman asking her son about his daughter, whom he hasn't seen for years. She asks what is left the daughter and what has kept the man and his daughter apart? Wyatt realizes that all he has to give to Marlais is the story of his life; his experience as a detritus gaffer dovetails with his mission, as he dredges up memories, the flotsam and jetsam of life, making sense of what it has sent him, what he's saved, discarded, and what he can salvage. Cornelia, in a letter to Wyatt, says, "Don't forget: now and then, life can be improved on." That may be true of life; it's not true of What Is Left the Daughter. No improvement needed; it is perfect.--Marilyn Dahl