In an effort to get through my reviews, a series of short ones starting with Gail Godwin’s latest novel, Flora. Writing from her present position as an elderly lady author, Helen looks back to the summer in 1945 when she turned eleven. ‘There are things we can’t undo,’ she says, ‘but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.’
It was always going to be a difficult summer for Helen, whose grandmother has recently died of an unexpected heart attack, trying on a new hat for Easter in the local department store. Nonie has been a paragon, but via the medium of Helen’s memories we can see she had strong opinions, not least that you should keep as much of your business to yourself as possible. Helen’s prim mother died when she was three, and although she has a father who is a headmaster, no less, he’s an acerbic tongued drunk, momentarily released from small town captivity to the grander, secretive ‘war work’ going on at Oak Ridge. To babysit Helen then, comes her mother’s cousin, 22-year-old Flora who wears her emotions for all to see, eager and quick to confess, nakedly vulnerable in her soft sensitivity and sometimes a little dumb. Helen finds her intensely irritating. She is a precocious child, a bit of a snob, a bit of a prig, moody and grandiose and lost to her burgeoning imagination, who triumphantly declares in her dealings with Flora that ‘At last, at last … I am learning how to get people to do as I want.’ Helen’s voice rings so true to a certain stage of childhood, one in which excruciating self-awareness battles against base instinct, that questions of liking or not liking this child become irrelevant. Of course a young girl who is as abandoned as she has been is going to seek control over others with more determination than is attractive. And Flora is the perfect training ground, a young woman with no natural authority, whom Helen can – and does – easily dominate.
Gail Godwin risks a great deal in this story by imprisoning them in their big old house on the hill thanks to an outbreak of polio, a disease Helen’s father suffered as a child and whose dangers he is understandably anxious about. Stuck together day after day, both Helen and Flora turn all their attention to the delivery boy – the convalescent soldier, Finn – who brings them their groceries. As the narrative circles lazily round and around their claustrophobic situation, we are aware that calamity is drawing ever closer. Yet the story is stitched on a background of possible redemption, embodied in the house itself, which used to be a nursing home for recovering addicts and mental patients who were well enough to be released from hospital but unable to face the prospect of home. You’d have to be a writer of real stature to take on a story as static and subtle as this one, but three-times National Book Award winner Gail Godwin is more than up to it. Luminous prose and excellent characterisation mark this slow-burner.