Tag Archives: Howard Norman

What is Left the Daughter: In which I only realize I read the book before after writing this review and the two reviews are… not the same.

BIG NEWS. First time ever, but I wrote this review and when I was typing in the ‘tags’ realized that I READ IT BEFORE. And REVIEWED IT BEFORE. And I had NO MEMORY AT ALL that I’d ever encountered the book before! AH! My brain! Anyway, When I read this (in 2011) I was ambivalent. Almost ten years later (let’s grant that the intervening decade may be why I don’t recall it At. All.?) I am less easily swayed. If you want to read the earlier review you can find it here. I will say that 2011 Erin was far more impressed by detail. And actually thought this was a book I’d ‘keep thinking about’ LOL.

And now… the review I wrote before I realized I’d reviewed it before!

It shouldn’t be so boring. What is Left the Daughter opens with a dramatic love triangle that renders protagonist Wyatt Hillier an orphan. It has the drama of U-boats and the war and murder! But then it also has tedious descriptions of scones and gramophone recordings and definitions of words.

Ostensibly told as a series of letters from father to daughter (though what letter would ever include Such Outrageous Detail I don’t know) the novel follows the life of Wyatt as he comes to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, and becomes a… wait. Try to imagine the most boring job you can imagine. Did you guess toboggan and sled maker? You’re right – that falls outside the scope of imagination for most boring, but there it is, all true. He falls in love, but the woman of his affection loves another man. A *gasp* German man amid WWII Nova Scotia. Drama-drama, family-drama. Except… no real drama. Just agonizing mundane exhaustion.

So yeah. I would have stopped reading this one, but I kept thinking it was going to get better. It doesn’t. Don’t. Bother.


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, National Book Award, Worst Books

What is Left the Daughter: Undecided.


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.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read