Howard Norman, widely regarded as one of this country’s finest novelists, returns to the mesmerizing fictional terrain of his major books—The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Haunting of L—in this erotically charged and morally complex story.
Seventeen-year-old Wyatt Hillyer is suddenly orphaned when his parents, within hours of each other, jump off two different bridges—the result of their separate involvements with the same compelling neighbor, a Halifax switchboard operator and aspiring actress. The suicides cause Wyatt to move to small-town Middle Economy to live with his uncle, aunt, and ravishing cousin Tilda.
Setting in motion the novel’s chain of life-altering passions, and the wartime perfidy at its core, is the arrival of German student Hans Mohring, carrying only a satchel. Actual historical incidents—including a German U-boat’s sinking of the Nova Scotia–Newfoundland ferry Caribou, on which Aunt Constance Hillyer might or might not be traveling—lend intense narrative power to Norman’s uncannily layered story.
Wyatt’s account of the astonishing events leading up to his fathering of a beloved daughter spills out 21 years later. It’s a confession that speaks profoundly of the mysteries of human character in wartime and is directed, with both despair and hope, to an audience of one.
An utterly stirring novel, this is Howard Norman at his celebrated best.
On its surface, What Is Left the Daughter is a tight, small tale written as a single letter by protagonist Wyatt Hillyer to his estranged 21-year-old daughter but its outsize scope paints a picture of love and loss in wartime that belies author Howard Norman’s compact storytelling. In 1941 Nova Scotia, the teenage Wyatt’s aunt and uncle take him in after he loses both parents to separate suicides. As tragic as their deaths are, it’s the events that follow, recalled with heartbreaking detail in Wyatt’s missive, that gives the novel its emotional thrust.
Narrating the short book its 256 pages top out at a listening time of about seven hours is actor Bronson Pinchot, best known for playing loopy immigrant Balki Bartokomous on the 1980s sitcom Perfect Strangers. Here, Pinchot lends Wyatt a guileless, plaintive voice as he details life during World War II-era Canada, especially with his carpenter uncle, who obsessively papers the walls of his shed with news stories of German U-boat disasters, and his beautiful adopted cousin, Tilda, whose romance with a young German student divides their small town.
Given the novel’s epistolary structure, playing the melancholic Wyatt more or less one-note is a risk that pays off; Pinchot’s measured intonation reveals more about the character’s emotional inner life than would a more robust cadence. That said, the listener is hardly deprived of Pinchot’s talents, as Norman has populated his book with a wealth of quirky secondary characters that lets the actor utilize his knack for adopting accents (here, he has fun with Irish, German, and, of course, Canadian dialects). The result is a performance that lends an already excellent novel more beauty, more depth, and, if possible, more raw feeling. Jaime Buerger
“An expertly crafted tale of love during wartime…Norman’s writing is effortless, and his plot is grand in scope but studded with moments of tenderness and intimacy that help crystallize the anxiety and weariness of life on the home front. That Norman is able to achieve so much in 250 pages is a testament to his mastery of the craft.” (Publishers Weekly)
“[An] intricately beautiful story about love, jealousy, war, prejudice, survival, and a library.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Norman…scores again with this gripping account of a family ripped apart by obsession and murder…Norman has developed this brave, emotionally reticent man with great delicacy. It is extraordinary that a story which carries such a weight of sorrow is never depressing, but Norman the master craftsman pulls it off.” (Kirkus)
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Quiet, Yet Powerful
Good work by Bronson Pinchot
- Kristi Warriner