- Gail Godwin
- Bloomsbury USA
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- June 18, 2013
A tragic childhood summer haunts a woman years later.
Award-winning author Gail Godwin spent the summer of 1948 sequestered with her mother and stepfather on a North Carolina mountaintop to escape a polio epidemic in the valley. She employs a similar situation in Flora, and attributes her immediate inspiration to re-reading a “few lines” that she wrote decades later in her journal about that 11-year-old summer: “That house on the top of the mountain! Children are like bombs that will one day go off.” These phrases“triggered the idea for Flora,” and also connected to her “abiding love and fascination with The Turn of the Screw.” She set out to “write a novel about a child and her guardian in isolation … I wanted my child to be more sophisticated than her guardian. I was also very interested in moral tensions and how a young mind finds its place in those moral tensions.”
So in this, her 14th novel, Godwin pursues her fascination with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as well as, apparently, the related themes and circumstances of his novel What Maisie Knew, which also features a child, a caretaking governess and inadequate or absent parents. Of Maisie Godwin wrote in her journal, “I … wondered what a novel would be like if it were as subtle as Maisie without all the Jamesian syntax.” Here she reimagines a locked tinder-box setting very like the remote estate of The Turn of the Screw and introduces a child protagonist rather like Maisie: observant, precocious, both naïve and shrewd — a child prematurely coming of age, struggling with dependency and power, responsibility and contrition, approaching the epiphany of what Maisie’s governess calls “moral sense.” Godwin’s narrator speaks to the reader in a plain voice rather than with James’ intricacy; the clarity of the author’s prose evidences her brief post-college stint in journalism before going on to receive her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.
In his introduction to The Turn of the Screw, James says his intended tone is “suspected and felt trouble.” Godwin strikes this same reverberant tone in her opening paragraph: “There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.” Her narrator, Helen, proceeds to remember and relive the summer of 1945, the summer she was 10, alone with her 22-year-old cousin Flora. What happened that summer has proved to be “… one of those dreams you can spend a whole life deciphering.” Her perspective swivels in time from present to past. “What is anyone’s memory but another narrative form,” observes Helen. The retrospective narrative evokes the waking dreams of childhood, “like lying in a hammock with my past, present, and future all tucked around me.” The reader easily follows into Helen’s story.
Helen and her widowed father Henry Anstruther have always lived with his mother, her beloved Nonie, in the family’s dilapidated mountaintop home, a former sanatorium. But after Nonie’s sudden death just before Easter 1945, Anstruther engages Helen’s cousin Flora (who bears the name of the girl child in The Turn of the Screw, one of Godwin’s many glancing salutes to James) to come look after his daughter. He leaves for the summer to do war work in Oak Ridge, Tenn., forbidding his daughter and Flora to leave the mountaintop because two children in the valley have contracted polio.
Snobbish Helen resents Flora, seeing the aspiring teacher as a “simple minded” redneck invading the house and usurping her grandmother’s place. She determines to use Flora to learn how “to get people to do what I want.” The two are totally alone except for weekly visits from the housekeeper until a charming stranger arrives. Finn, a young veteran discharged due to a vague “mental condition,” charges up their rough driveway on a motorcycle to deliver groceries and captivates Helen (as Maisie’s stepfather Sir Claude entranced her). While Finn develops a flirtation with Flora, Helen enters into secretive competition for his attention, culminating in the crisis and tragedy that will forever haunt her.
Perpetually penitent, the adult Helen is compelled to continue her efforts to decipher the meaning of the events, understand Flora better, and atone for having mistaken her cousin’s generous “simple heartedness” for “simple mindedness.” Godwin writes a non-literal ghost story here, a subtle, realistic tale of psychological possession and a first erotic obsession, paying homage in a realistic vein to the gothic, subtly erotic The Turn of the Screw. “I don’t believe in the hokey supernatural but I think there are psychological ghosts,” Godwin told an interviewer.
Here as before she conveys the universal sensation of being haunted — not by specters and ectoplasm, but by longing for those lost. She captures the experience of being possessed by regret, remorse and guilt over disappointing, betraying and surviving the deceased. The author believes in “being haunted by patterns of behavior.” Helen is thus haunted by remembered behavior and misbehavior, “things we can’t undo.” When someone recognizes the adult Helen as “… that haunted little girl…” she replies, “I’d never thought of it that way … but I suppose I am.”
Readers of Godwin’s earlier work, ranging from her first story collection Dream Children (1976)to the novella Evenings at Five (2003), based on her experience mourning her late partner, composer Robert Starer, will recognize motifs including the paradoxical presence in absence, the way that rooms and furniture remain occupied by the spirits of the departed. Readers will empathize with the way Helen is haunted by the past, understand her yearning for atonement and restitution, her striving for “constructive remorse.”And Godwin’s story itself lingers in the mind’s eye and ear, gently haunting the reader even after the book is closed.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals including The Massachusetts Review, Potomac Review, Iron Horse, and The Fiction Writer’s Review. A clinical social worker, she holds an MFA from Bennington and is the recipient of past fellowships from The Virginia Center for the Arts. Currently she is at work on a novel set in a former psychiatric asylum.