Ordinary Lives, ordinary tragedies, exceptionally told
This is a beautifully written, carefully observed novel, simple in many ways, but extremely satisfying to this reader, because it contains nothing contrived, nothing forced.
Helen (the central character, through whose eyes we see the world) is a young girl, a month or so away from her eleventh birthday. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was brought up by her grandmother, who has, at the start of the novel, also very recently died. The book is set in a small, conservative community in America, shortly before Hiroshima. Her father is a cold, inhibited man, away working at Oak Ridge on the project which will produce that first atom bomb.
Helen, in many ways with a heart as turned inwards as her father, is looked after for the summer by Flora, an distant older cousin. Helen is sharp, intelligent, precocious, domineering and self-obsessed. Flora lacks Helen’s sharp mind, but has a simple, true heart. All this is shown, not told. To say the story is about the relationship between the two, and how they learn from each other, and how the balance of power between the two shifts, is true, but does not adequately describe the depth and complexity of Godwin’s observations. Less dramatically, but equally truthfully, she reminds me, in her careful, honest unfolding of character, of Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres
And just when you think you have the measure of the story, what kind of book it is, and where it is going, Godwin begins to project forward to an adult Helen, revisiting her earlier self, and we realise this is an older Helen, looking at the past through an adult filter.
Yes, there are revelations, there are tragedies, personal and wider, which are revealed, once people and their personal stories are set on the stage of their wider place-and-time history, but Godwin is far from the sort of writer to seeks to deliver cheap shocks with the unfolding of tragedies and skeletons in the cupboard. No schlocky garish fright mask wearing skeletons, more a slow unwrapping, and life going on.
A beautiful, modest, incredibly satisfying piece of writing. I really like Godwin’s patience, and her trust in the intelligence of her reader, and her own skill, allowing the depth and individual quirkiness of her characters (in the way every individual is unique) to be revealed, without blowsy clumsy plotting, carelessly generalised character, or self-indulgent ‘beautiful’ writing. She does write beautifully – but it is because nothing seems false