Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg
by Gail Godwin
321 Pages; Print, $27, June 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1632867049
There is a transparency between the living and the dead, a place where we navigate our own mortality. Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage is a sort of way station where we may dare to enter, searching for threads of connection and meaning. In this important new novel, she asks what dies to us and in us while we are still corporeal beings. How do our fears distort our truth and perceptions? What engenders loneliness? Mitigates loss?
The protagonist is eleven-year-old Marcus Harshaw. His mother named him after Marcus Aurelius, an Emperor of Rome, whose Meditations explored the psychological balance of stability amidst a conflicted and chaotic world. It is a fitting name for this precocious, introspective little boy who survives his challenges to emerge into a more grounded and evolved adult. Marcus tells us he was “one of those people willing to accept that uncanny things might turn out to be aspects of the natural world” (P. 65, ll. 4-5).
The book is wonderfully informed by multiple metaphorical depictions of our inner and outer struggles. Young Marcus loses his mother, his only parent, and goes to live with his eccentric and spiritually bruised great Aunt Charlotte on a small island in South Carolina at the beginning of the summer. Aunt Charlotte has past wounds that haunt her, rendering her a reclusive but renowned local painter. One of her favorite subjects is “Grief Cottage,” a local, historic house now rundown, its ruins speaking to her own losses and regrets. Island natives named the cottage after a hurricane from fifty years ago that took the lives of a mother, father and son who were renting the property. Their bodies had never been found. A local realtor, Charlie Coggins, has been unsuccessful in selling it for years. Marcus notes that it “reminded you of the impermanence of everything and the treacheries awaiting you even on a nice day” (P. 30, ll. 1-2). Marcus wrestles with how to confront the daily vagaries of life while maintaining faith and constancy.
While his aunt paints in her studio, Marcus is drawn to the cottage, eventually working up the courage to trespass inside where he encounters the ghost of the lost family’s son, Johnny Dace. Uncertain whether Dace is a potential friend or foe, he is nevertheless drawn back repeatedly. But this is not a typical ghost story. In her direct, unembellished style Godwin introduces her characters quickly and distinctly, drawing us in, allowing us to care about each one immediately. These characters come alive to us in very visceral ways on this journey told with Dickensian skill and impact.
Moving in with Aunt Charlotte gives Marcus his first view of the ocean that is representative of the wide, unknown spaces of the world. He becomes involved with the local patrol monitoring the eggs of loggerhead turtles who have planted their eggs near his aunt’s cottage on the beach in what is an ancient, annual ritual. They’re monitored closely and cared for by experienced locals; however only some will make the eventual exodus into the sea to survive once they hatch at summer’s end. This ceremonial observance becomes an emblem of Marcus’ own choice to face his past and fears, to move forward and, ultimately, to thrive despite life’s imminent dangers. In speaking to the dormant eggs, Marcus tells them, “The reason we can’t pick you up and carry you is because you need to do the walk yourselves so you can smell the sand and remember your way back to this beach when you’re grown up” (P. 151, ll. 1-4). This echoes the book’s note prior to Chapter One: “Not everybody gets to grow up. First you have to survive your childhood, and then begins the hard work of growing into it.” We must go backward to go forward. Still Marcus considers the alternative when he ruminates, “It might have been better to be one of those eggs that never opened. No pain, no fight, no terror” (P. 260, ll. 2-4), a sentiment we all share at one point or another. Later on Marcus misses the actual hatching at the critical moment the turtles emerge from their shells while taking care of someone else’s problem. He must learn to take care of himself and not miss his own critical “hatching.”
Marcus struggles with gaps in his past. As Aunt Charlotte observes, no one remains totally unscathed by difficult family history: “Try the Greeks, try the bible, try Shakespeare, or choose from the abundant pity-memoirs on your local bookstore racks” (P. 101, ll. 2-4). His aunt’s character is revealed further to Marcus when he discovers a painting in her studio depicting a legacy of childhood abuse, entering where he has been forbidden to go. Interestingly, Aunt Charlotte, who drinks way too much wine, falls and breaks her right arm and must learn to paint with her left for awhile if she is going to work at all. Previously her painting precluded her from facing the past and was an escape. This switch in routine occasions her ability to use her art to confront the hurt she has suffered. We must move from our comfort zones in order to discover and face truth. We separate ideas of what is good for us and what we should shy away from. But the answers to what help us lie within the very things that often repel us. Through distance, time and hard work we can recover them. Marcus works through this process by slowly unpacking the boxes from his old apartment while memories gradually piece together.
Before moving to his aunt’s house, Marcus had a strong, conflicted relationship with his friend Shelby known as Wheezer because of his asthma. Wheezer speaks one of the most important lines of the book when he answers Marcus about how to tell the difference between whether or not a ghost is worthy or a different kind of energy: “Maybe you wouldn’t, at first…until your intuition kicked in” (P. 175, ll. 21-22). Intuition is the critical word that, when all is said and done, is the ultimate barometer in navigating our way through the world. He thinks of Wheezer often and continues to feel a strong, binding connection. He is also consumed with finding out the identity of his real father, something his mother had promised to reveal, as he grew older. But his new life brings a true father figure in “Lash” Lachicotte Hayes, a friend to Charlotte and a great confidante for Marcus. Without being intrusive, he guides Marcus with succinct and wise advice. In speaking how alive the dead can seem to us, he tells Marcus, “After all the human noise and conflicts have stopped, the absent person has more room in your heart to spread out…” (P. 221, ll. 23-25). Marcus’ friendship with an elderly neighbor, Coral Upchurch, gives him further insights into the ghost boy. Coral’s son, Billy, had been friendly with Johnny when they were young teenage boys. Coral discloses the recent passing of her only child and confides her feelings of loss to Marcus. She is in her nineties and her son was only sixty-five. She laments, “We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves” (P. 243, ll. 8-9). But we can find our true tribe if we release our misperceptions and open our hearts to life’s unexpected gifts.
We often form our opinions of others based on singular experiences and, as Aunt Charlotte points out to Marcus, “Funny how the same person can be an entirely different entity to various people” (P. 8, ll. 24-25). Identities and connections are not as straightforward as we imagine. In contemplating the ghost of Johnny, Marcus asks, “Couldn’t it be equally possible that I was haunting him?” (P. 69, ll. 26-27). We cannot avoid the inevitable forever. Marcus laments, “The awful things I didn’t want inside me kept expanding” (P. 262, ll. 6-7). Over time Marcus loses weight, something he had been self-conscious about, but it is the relief of psychological weight that he seeks. He speaks to a woman on the beach who is training a service dog for Iraqi war veterans. She tells him, “I never knew there were so many ways a person could get wounded and still be alive” (P. 155, ll. 18-19). The weight of these thoughts reaches a critical point within him, and his conscience, referred to as “Cutting Edge,” speaks to him: “Such lengths you humans go to color up the evil inside of you” (P. 267, ll. 9-10). Marcus goes into Grief Cottage hoping never to come out, feeling his “awfuls,” as he refers to them, are unbearable. A subsequent epiphany is assured after the intervention by those “sures” who truly care about him—particularly Lash and, undoubtedly, Aunt Charlotte. As Wheezer had once told Marcus, a “sure” was “a person you could always count on to be thinking of you and missing you, no matter where you were” (P. 260, ll. 17-19). But the greatest lesson Marcus learns is to value and accept himself.
The mystery of Johnny Dace is resolved—symbolic of Marcus reconciling past fears. By following his life’s path just the way his aunt worked through issues with her own creative impetus and Lash through his own passions and genuine interests, Marcus eventually finds his calling. There are several neat resolutions at the conclusion of the book that are far from contrived and gratuitous. In a lovely twist at the novel’s end that links to a prescient dream about his mother, an adult Marcus visits Wheezer and his family back in his old neighborhood. Wheezer is succumbing to Stage Four Lymphoblastic lymphoma. In a touching reunion, Marcus spends several days with Wheezer. He shows them a photo he’s been carrying around from his mother, supposedly of his father, cut out from a school yearbook. I won’t spoil the lovely ending that ties the themes of this book together so beautifully. I highly recommend you discover that for yourself and enjoy your own transformation. I unabashedly admit to self-reflective, commiserative tears upon finishing it.
Ms. Godwin is an award-winning, bestselling novelist whose work is critically acclaimed and popularly recognized and with good cause. She imbues her stories with a sensitivity and universal experience beyond local narratives, asking us big, thoughtful questions about our lives and the world around us in very personal, relatable accounts. We identify with her characters because we are them, comprehensive representatives of the many facets of our own spirit. There is so much to be gleaned from almost every page of this deeply moving novel. We share the earth not only with the living but the dead we carry within us. As Marcus states, “There was so much I didn’t know about relationships between the dead and the living” (P. 94, ll. 22-23). We need to want to know, and that can be as rewarding as reading Godwin’s enlightening new work.
About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, reviews and essays. Her latest book is Out From Calaboose, by Nirala Publications (2017). She lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.