Meredith's Reviews > What Is Left the Daughter

What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman
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's review
Dec 26, 14

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bookshelves: netgalley, canada, reviewed, arc, fiction
Read from May 12 to 13, 2010

Wyatt Hillyer is a magnet for tragedy. When he is a teenager, his parents commit suicide on the same day, driven to such extremes by their mutual romantic entanglements with a neighbor. This is only the first of a string of personal tragedies to befall him over the next several years.

What Is Left the Daughter (a title referencing the concept of inheritance) is an epistolary novel, written by a father to his daughter. It chronicles World War II Canada, zeroing in on the anti-German sentiment that presided there during the Holocaust. So much of the tragedy that befalls Wyatt involves this very prejudice. It is also a story of unrequited love.

Epistolary novels always have the potential to win big or fail miserably. This one falls somewhere in the middle. The writing is clean, even lyrical in places. However, the very format that propels the narrative also inhibits it. Because this is a letter from Wyatt to a daughter (Marlais) whom he barely knows, there is a certain detachment from the events that transpire. What was most frustrating about this story was its ample, but unrealized, potential for character exploration and development. Some pretty heavy things happen to this young man, but he never lets us in. We never feel their after-effects resonating within him.

Wyatt is, instead, a lens through which we observe Canada at this historical juncture, often deflecting the spotlight from himself and casting it upon secondary and tertiary characters. Sometimes, these vignettes are effective. Other times, they make the narrative feel unfocused and even scattered. Wyatt's own letters contain two lines that elucidate my own frustrations with this story, the first spoken by Cornelia and the second by Wyatt himself: 1) "'In her letters she refers to intimate things but doesn't describe things intimately'" (197), and 2) "I realize I've sometimes raced over the years like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river" (223). Wyatt is, apparently, aware that he has shared little of himself in this story, and has at times glossed over events of enormous personal and historic magnitude.

The author's writing is compelling. I would be curious to read other works by him. However, again, I found the epistolary format of this particular narrative to be limiting. Wyatt had the potential to be a rich, multifaceted character. Instead, he felt like a virtual stranger. Perhaps this was deliberate. Perhaps Norman wanted the reader to feel the same estrangement from him that Marlais, the daughter who grew up not knowing him, must have.

(Disclaimer: I received the galley proofs of this title from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review.)
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