Book Review: Flora by Gail Godwin

FloraFlora by Gail Godwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible – Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora’s behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.

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Book Review: The Cove by Ron Rash

The CoveThe Cove by Ron Rash

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The dank and dangerous cylinder of a new well, where the walls could collapse at any moment, crushing the digger in a muddy grave; a valley so overwhelmed by a cliff of granite that light shudders and dies in its wet shadow; a voice choked from sound, leaving a man trapped in silence; a young woman isolated by fear and suspicion in a remote mountain cabin: these are the acedian images Ron Rash writes to sobering effect in The Cove.

This is a novel of a place seemingly suspended in time, a forgotten hollow in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina, where venomous snakes slither, wild parakeets flit like flocks of bright green faeries and where residents still believe in witches’ curses. But the modern world invades this isolated land with the wounded and dead from European trenches. As their broken bodies return home, fear of the enemy Hun incites public hysteria.

Rash weaves a story with themes that ring loudly to the present-day: how patriotism can be a mask for prejudice and a justification for violence, how war robs us of our sensibilities as well as our citizens.Yet instead of stating the obvious, he shows us with an atmospheric mystery that runs languid on the surface, but races with an unstoppable current in depths you cannot fathom.

The Cove is written in an opalescent and mannered style that is reminiscent of a 19th century Gothic romance. It abounds with literary archetypes: a persecuted young woman dreaming of escape and the love of a strong man; a mysterious stranger who speaks with music instead of words; a wealthy young villain with delusions of grandeur; a Greek chorus of simple country folk; a gruff but well-meaning brother. We know these characters because they have been with us from our earliest memories of faerie tales and mythology. We sense that our star-crossed lovers will fare no better than Romeo and Juliet; we are wiser than to hope for a hero. Whether or not a hero appears is for you to discover.

The novel’s flaws can be found in Rash’s over-simplification of the pretentious and cowardly Army recruiter, Chauncey Feith, and the backward suspicions of the townsfolk. He also dwells overlong on Laurel’s isolation and loneliness and treats her response to romance with little-girl wonder, which nearly degrades her character rather than invoking the reader’s empathy.

Despite some of weaker character development, this reader is delighted to have discovered a writer who can craft a powerful story with captivating language.

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