What Is Left the Daughter
Howard Norman, widely regarded as one of this country’s finest novelists, returns to the mesmerizing fictional terrain of his major books—The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Haunting of L—in this erotically charged and morally complex story.
Seventeen-year-old Wyatt Hillyer is suddenly orphaned when his parents, within hours of each other, jump off two different bridges—the result of their separate involvements with the same compelling neighbor, a Halifax switchboard operator and aspiring actress. The suicides cause Wyatt to move to small-town Middle Economy to live with his uncle, aunt, and ravishing cousin Tilda.
Setting in motion the novel’s chain of life-altering passions and the wartime perfidy at its core is the arrival of the German student Hans Mohring, carrying only a satchel. Actual historical incidents—including a German U-boat’s sinking of the Nova Scotia–Newfoundland ferry Caribou, on which Aunt Constance Hillyer might or might not be traveling—lend intense narrative power to Norman’s uncannily layered story.
Wyatt’s account of the astonishing—not least to him— events leading up to his fathering of a beloved daughter spills out twenty-one years later. It’s a confession that speaks profoundly of the mysteries of human character in wartime and is directed, with both despair and hope, to an audience of one.
An utterly stirring novel. This is Howard Norman at his celebrated best.
Praise For What Is Left the Daughter…
—BookPage"The latest from master of precision Howard Norman is again set in the gray majesty of Nova Scotia, where 17-year-old orphan Wyatt Hillyer moves in with his devoted aunt and uncle and their adopted daughter, Tilda, the love of stoic Wyatt's life. The ravages of Hitler and his dastardly German U-boats lurking beneath Canadian waters hit their home hard. In What Is Left the Daughter, Norman writes with spare elegance and dry humor, and the extraordinary emotional power of his slim new novel is earned with authentic grace. Grade: A"
—Entertainment Weekly"Fans of Howard Norman's THE BIRD ARTIST will recognize the venue and the oddball characters in the author's beautiful new novel, WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER....Norman turns a tiny town into an entire world in which even the most heinous sins can—almost—be forgiven."
—O, The Oprah Magazine"Howard Norman has captured the fear and suspicion that World War II brought to the East Coast perfectly, as news reports circulate and the silent and spooky threat of the U-boats is ever-present….Norman also captures the speech and texture of life in Nova Scotia with gentle humor and deft description…No improvement needed [for WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER]; it is perfect."
—Shelf Awareness"[A]n expertly crafted tale of love during wartime…Norman’s writing is effortless, and his plot is grand in scope but studded with moments of tenderness and intimacy that help crystallize the anxiety and weariness of life on the home front. That Norman is able to achieve so much in 250 pages is a testament to his mastery of the craft."
—Publishers Weekly , STARRED"Norman (best known for The Bird Artist, 1994) scores again with this gripping account of a family ripped apart by obsession and murder...It is extraordinary that a story which carries such a weight of sorrow is never depressing, but Norman the master craftsman pulls it off." —Kirkus, STARRED"Norman’s piquant insights into life’s wildness, human eccentricity, and love’s maddening persistence are matched by rhapsodic and profound descriptions of everything from perfectly baked scones to pelting rain and the devouring sea, while anguish is tempered with humor, thanks to rapid-fire banter and marvelously spiky characters."
—Booklist, STARRED"Howard Norman’s new novel, WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER, is the best story of love in the time of war I’ve ever read. And yes, that includes COLD MOUNTAIN AND A FAREWELL TO ARMS....WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER affirms what many of Howard Norman’s readers have known since he published his magical first novel, THE NORTHERN LIGHTS. Norman is most certainly one of America’s three or four best novelists, with a uniquely wise and tolerant vision of his characters and all human beings everywhere. So let’s not mince words. WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER is a literary masterpiece that will, I guarantee it, live on in your heart, and mine, forever." —Howard Mosher, Amazon.com"Howard Norman is a master storyteller, packing provocative details into virtually every sentence of this short, but hardly slight, novel....What is left the daughter--and the reader--here is the gift of one man's utterly human, heartbreaking life story."
"This saga of sorrow, love, and a father's desire to meet his grown daughter displays power...moving" —Boston Globe
"You lean in, trying to catch every word, lulled by [Norman's] voice as he describes the most ordinary lives that just happen to be punctuated by macabre accidents. . . . Norman offers a kind of rough-hewn poetry throughout [with an] ardor that shimmers just below the surface." —Washington Post
"Reminiscent of a classic Robert Frank black-and-white photograph, this candid, everyday portrait discloses intricate webs of wistfulness and resignation. Norman raises absorbing moral quandaries, particularly about the possibilities of forgiveness...The epistolary form of this novel is a cri de coeur from an author faithful to the printed word in a time of promiscuous texting, friending and tweeting. Students today who can't write in cursive are able to e-mail across the world. The reflective, personal storytelling in "What Is Left the Daughter" reminds us of the potential beauty, intimacy and wisdom offered by two endangered genres—the letter and the novel." —Los Angeles Times
Mariner Books, 9780547521824, 264pp.
Publication Date: May 3, 2011
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- What Is Left the Daughter begins with a love triangle. How many other triangular relationships appear in the book? Why, do you think?
- How do Wyatt and Reese Mac Isaac interact with each other? Were you surprised by Wyatt’s response to and relationship to her? Why do you think Howard Norman chose telephone operator as Reese’s profession?
- “Maybe I take things with the radio too personally,” (p. 3) Wyatt says. Why? What do radios mean to him? How do they appear throughout the book and what is their significance?
- The Highland Book of Platitudes is referred to often throughout What Is Left the Daughter (see, in particular, pp. 48–49); what is its significance? What are platitudes, and why does Tilda, and later Wyatt, put such stock in the ones in the book? What does it say about Hans Mohring that he belittles platitudes (p. 49)?
- Why do you think Donald grows obsessed with newspaper clippings and radio bulletins? Do you think this is a realistic characterization? What do you think Howard Norman is saying, through the character of Donald, about lives in wartime?
- For Wyatt, Tilda was “too much beauty” (p. 29). Have you experienced this yourself? How did Tilda think of Wyatt?
- Cornelia Tell says, “In your life happiness is either cut to your length or isn’t” (p. 20). What do you think of this idea that happiness and sadness are predetermined to each person? How do you see this played out in the novel? Is happiness cut to Wyatt’s length?
- How do you react to Tilda’s calling as a professional mourner? To Hans Mohring writing his own obituary? How are these choices fitting?
- How is Tilda’s adoption used in the novel? What is important about her being adopted? How does it affect her relationships with Donald and Constance, and the way she loses each of them?
- Many of the characters in this book have lost one or both parents. How does this loss affect them? What do you think it means, in particular, to Marlais? And how might it contribute to Wyatt’s decision to write to her?
- The town of Middle Economy is depicted with such realism that it in some ways becomes a character. Why and how do you think the setting is important to the author? Are there other authors you’ve read who make places feel like actual characters?
- Canada—Nova Scotia in particular—had a real role in WWII. Were the representations of U-boat activity and the impact on regular citizens and village life during wartime a surprise to you?
- Did you find Wyatt’s actions immediately after Hans’ murder shocking or somehow understandable? Why? Likewise, did you feel Tilda’s reaction to and relationship with Wyatt upon his return to Middle Economy beyond understanding, or not?
- Water and water scenes have haunting roles in What Is Left the Daughter. Can you trace some of them?