So if we’ve spent any time together you’ll know that I (occasionally) refer to the book I’m currently reading as “the best book ever.” I recognize I have a problem with hyperbole; I’m conscious of my excesses (most of the time). And so it happens once again that of late I’ve been talking up a novel as perfect and exquisite, in this case, Howard Norman’s What is Left the Daughter. But then! Circumstances conspired such that I boarded a bus, finished the last three pages of the novel, and had an entire hour and a half WITHOUT A BOOK with nothing to do but stare out the window and contemplate the book. And the more I sat and thought about What is Left the Daughter the less satisfied I became, the more contrived the ending, the more affected the tone, the more moralistic the plot (as if morals were, in their own right, dissatisfying).
And so I find myself at something of a loss writing this review.
Norman does tremendous, really tremendous, work grafting small, quotidian moments together to form rich, idiosyncratic yet utterly believable characters. Tiny scenes, like that of eating lunch on a bus, paradoxically distill and explode character in ways typically reserved for the best short stories.
On the other hand the setting of small town – Middle Economy – Nova Scotia during WWII reads as a cliche of every small town you’ve ever read (think of a blend of Richard Russo, Alistair MacLeod and Anne Tyler), complete with tiny diner and eccentric neighbours (so much so, in fact, that for the first 30 pages I wondered – truthfully – whether I’d read the book before).
The plot, too, balances the brilliant with the bland. I won’t spoil the climax – as it is – but I was left gasping, shocked, and yet, convinced that it should happen that way (and so brilliant). But then the ending falls short. Another case of an author unwilling to do what is necessary in order to be truthful to the plot that’s preceded and to the created characters. And with that said, the last two sentences are thematic perfection.
And Norman’s book raises all kinds of interesting questions about a national literature: is it setting that determines national lit? author’s nationality? duration of an author’s visit? thematic preoccupations? what’s the point of national literature anyway? I’ll not answer any of those questions, because I don’t have to anymore.
So without being able to articulate a decisive reaction to the text I’ll ask instead ‘when do we stop reading?’ as I have a suspicion the characters of What is Left the Daughter and their decisions will continue to populate my waking thoughts for days to come – and maybe that means I’m still reading? And so I can hold out hope that I’ll make up my mind about the text sooner or later – except not wanting to actually have to decide. Maybe this is what we readers owe the brilliant (or the almost-brilliant in this case) books in our lives: that we take them around with us after, never wanting them to feel wholly settled, but rather perched just this side of comfortable.