Is there a part of your past that won’t leave you alone? Do you ever retrace your steps, shifting and rearranging the pieces, trying to find some shred of salvation in the outcome?
In three new novels, three very different women reexamine who they were at points in their lives when everything familiar disappeared — a loved one, a marriage, a way of life once recognizable and safe. Long after they’ve endured events beyond their control, they find themselves transformed and redeemed by the power of story.
In National Book Award-winner Gail Godwin’s Flora (Bloomsbury, $26), an elderly woman relives a pivotal summer in her life, hoping to exercise “a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.” It’s a stiff pronouncement to begin a novel with, and we soon find out why.
When her father leaves town for a war job in Tennessee in June 1945, 10-year-old Helen Anstruther, an only child who lost her mother at age three, finds herself in the care of her 22-year-old cousin, Flora. A polio epidemic in town quarantines them in Helen’s isolated North Carolina home, a former sanitarium for TB patients, recovering alcoholics and others “whose nerves weren’t yet up to going back to ordinary life.”
Ordinary life is exactly what few of the characters in Flora can handle. Helen, reeling from the recent death of the grandmother who raised her, is determined not to fall apart — in her family, emotional displays are off-limits.
By contrast, Flora is a softhearted girl given to ready tears and frank confessions. She’s a poor relation who’ll talk to anyone about anything, revealing too many family skeletons in the process. Though she longs to be a comforting and stable companion for Helen, her compassion undermines Helen’s practiced detachment, and the child’s struggle to regain her footing makes for an often chilling coming-of-age story.
Readers familiar with Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir, The Glass Castle, will feel right at home in her engaging novel, The Silver Star (Scribner, $29.99), as soon as the narrator describes a mother who sets her new baby on top of the car and starts to drive off, alerted by her older daughter before it’s too late.
“Mom was going through a rough period at the time,” remembers 12-year-old Bean, who was that infant. Eventually, Mom, an aspiring singer, drives off without either daughter, deserting them in favor of L.A. and a “big break.” Bean and her 15-year-old sister, Liz, subsist for a while on chicken pot pies, but when their mother fails to return, the two hop on a bus to Virginia to take refuge with their reclusive Uncle Tinsley.
Tinsley takes his nieces in, sharing his once-stately childhood home. When it’s obvious that their uncle’s dwindling reserves won’t cover their needs, the girls secretly take jobs at the local textile mill. The foreman is a bully and a thief, and his treatment of the sisters, especially Liz, land him square in the sights of the headstrong Bean.
To Kill a Mockingbird casts a long shadow. Bean reads the book in school; her candid, no-nonsense narration evokes Scout’s voice; there is an attempted (but offstage) rape, a trial and a newly integrated town mired in Southern bigotry. Accordingly, The Silver Star will appeal to both adult and younger readers.
In Sea Creatures (coming out July 30, Harper Collins, $25.99), Susanna Daniel returns to the watery world of her first book, Stiltsville, with a tender tale of a woman navigating the responsibilities and risks of parenthood. Georgia Qullian, her husband, Graham, and their three-year-old son, Frankie, have moved from Illinois to her hometown of Coral Gables, Fla., in the summer of 1992 to make a fresh start. Two factors complicate their efforts: Graham has an incurable sleep disorder, which often has violent consequences, and Frankie has inexplicably stopped speaking.
After they settle into a houseboat, Georgia becomes a gofer for a reclusive local artist, Charlie Hick, and soon finds herself drawn to him and his surprising effect on her son.
A disquieting mood pervades Sea Creatures, with its broad hints about bad luck and Georgia’s worry over her child’s safety in structures surrounded by deep water. Just as unnerving are her husband’s sleep terrors. Yet Daniel’s celebration of life is so quietly joyous — in Georgia’s descriptions of Frankie, the familiar landscapes of home, the artist’s drawings of sea creatures, and the relationship that develops — that we cast our fears aside much as the narrator does.
“Traffic, heights, water,” Graham says. “There’s always something.” Add a hurricane poised to destroy everything in its path. But the real dangers Daniel asks us to consider are the inevitable risks that accompany love, including the perilous bargains we make to hang onto it.
(This review originally ran in the May 26 book section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)