What is left the daughter, by Howard Norman

Howard Norman is back! At last, a new novel to compare with The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard and The Northern Lights. I finished reading What is left the daughter with a much contented sigh. Howard’s usual style is there with the insouciant main character, Wyatt Hillyer, seeming to just allow life to happen to him. This guy is passive to the core, but a hero of sorts in the end, as he attempts to make amends with his estranged daughter of many years.

Set in Nova Scotia, a favourite haunt of Norman’s, What is left the daughter, is a wartime story using the actual sinking of the Nova Scotia to Newfoundland ferry, Caribou, by a German U-boat. The ferry is transporting Wyatt’s Aunt Constance from a christening, and upon hearing the news of its demise, Wyatt’s Uncle Donald is sent over the edge, committing his own wartime crime of passion.

The novel is presented in a matter of fact, honest  way – a confession and appeal in the form of a lengthy letter to Marlais, his daughter, detailing the events that resulted in their separation. It centres on Wyatt’s love for Tilda, Marlais’ mother, and the arrival of the German student, Hans Mohring. Hans is distracted from his studies in philology (an old term for linguistics) at Dalhousie University, having met Tilda on a bus travelling back to Middle Economy, where she, Wyatt, Constance and Donald live as a family.

As usual, Howard’s characters are eccentric, but his easy, cruise-along style, makes all the oddities seem perfectly feasible and natural. Tilda’s job as a professional mourner is unusual, to say the least, and she pours an abundance of passion into the role. The services of a mourner are required when no family member or other person attends a funeral. In order to give the deceased a respectable send-off, the mourner, well… mourns, and in Tilda’s case, quite spectacularly. Add to this, her obsession with the Scottish book of Highland Platitudes, that she “borrowed” from the local library, and she certainly makes for an interesting character.

Even Hans’s dedication to the subject of philology makes things interesting, and Wyatt’s job as a detritus gaffer is curious. As a detritus gaffer, he and his co-workers, collect flotsam and jetsam along the coastline so that the lanes are free for the Halifax-Dartmouth commuter ferries, fishing trawlers and freighters.

And, of course, no novel of Howard’s would be complete without some mention of birds. Two crows, wreaking havoc in the library, unsuspectingly cause another event – the basis of Howard’s story.

I hope you take the opportunity to read Norman’s latest novel. He’s the only author that I think I would ever be interested in actually meeting: he has such a comfortable, unaffected feel about him, and his characters and stories are unique.


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