Marlais, today is March 27, 1967, your twenty-first birthday. I’m writing because I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven’t told you. I’ve waited until now to relate the terrible incident that I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen.
What Is Left The Daughter is a beautifully written tale about love, longing, family ties, WWII, and surprising tragedies. You know that you’re in for an interesting character study when the book starts with the double suicide of the protagonist’s parents. Interestingly, while this terrible incident kick-started Wyatt Hillyer’s road to self discovery, it wasn’t the pivotal moment of the novel. It just served as Wyatt’s starting point.
At the age of seventeen, and newly orphaned, Wyatt leaves his childhood home and moves to small town Middle Economy outside of Halifax. Here, he lives with his Uncle Donald, Aunt Constance, and their adopted daughter, Tilda. It doesn’t take long for Wyatt to fall head-over-heels in love with Tilda, and it’s an even shorter distance to Tilda’s encounter with the German student Hans Mohring, with whom she falls deeply in love. They marry. Wyatt is then forced to spend a great deal of time with his cousin and her new German husband. Wyatt’s aching pulses throughout the story. You just want him to scoop Tilda in his arms and whisk her away.
During a time when the Canadian community of Halifax is faced with daily reports of U-boat attacks at the hands of the Germans, the reception for Hans is lukewarm at best. WWII was not a convenient time to fall in love with a German, regardless of that individual’s best intentions. Tilda is soft-spoken but headstrong, and she knows what she wants. She will not step away from Hans, much to the chagrin of her father, who follows every move of the Germans with an obsessive eye.
When the Newfoundland ferry Caribou becomes the newest German victim, Wyatt’s family is stricken, as they understand that Aunt Constance, Tilda’s mother, had been aboard. Tilda is in despair. Uncle Donald is inconsolable. Wyatt is heartbroken. And looming over all of this is the gloomy discomfort that surrounds Tilda’s marriage, which now grows markedly.
Unremittingly, another tragedy follows. This one manages to be more horrific. This one has even more power to shape the futures of everyone involved. It’s this point-of-no-return where everyone take a different path. The question is, will those paths lead these fascinating people back to one another?
While reading these accounts, it’s almost possible to forget that you’re privy to a father’s letter; a letter that serves as a confession. The layers of Howard Norman’s book are limitless, and you’ll begin to understand in incredible detail what makes each character tick. You’ll develop an unshakable affection for the people in Wyatt’s letter, and for each of their emotional plights. So many of the relationships often teeter on the brink of failure, and when one person manages to cling to the next, the emotion the reader feels can only be described as relief.
There are many other characters who will steal your heart, from the quirky town stenographer Lenore Teachout, to the ever-wise bakery owner Cornelia Tell. (The bond of friendship that grows between Wyatt and Cornelia was one of my favorite story lines of the book.) Howard Norman did a marvelous job of creating compelling characters, from Uncle Donald’s profession as a toboggan craftsman, to Tilda’s calling as a Professional Mourner. You just don’t get to read about people such as these every day.
This audiobook was narrated by Bronson Pinchot, and I was pleasantly surprised by his range. He captured the innocence and determination of Tilda, the anger and grudge behind Uncle Donald, and the quiet longing of Wyatt. Overall, Pinchot did a fine job, and I would listen to him again.
I enjoyed What Is Left The Daughter even more than I anticipated, and will look for more titles by Howard Norman with great expectations. 4 stars for this terrific story!