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Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
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0

A-WhatIsLefttheDaugterAn award-winning translator and folklorist, Howard Norman teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland, College Park. This is his tenth novel.

The Story: "Marlais," writes 43-year-old Wyatt Hillyer to his estranged daughter, "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." Twenty-six years earlier, Hillyer's parents simultaneously commit suicide over the same woman, and Hillyer, just 17 years old, is shuffled off to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, to live with an aunt, an uncle, and a ravishing cousin, with whom he falls in love but who instead marries a German refugee. As the blaze of World War II draws increasingly close to the small coastal community, otherwise decent, respectable citizens are driven to desperate acts.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780618735433

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"In What Is Left the Daughter, Norman writes with spare elegance and dry humor, and the extraordinary emotional power of his slim new novel is earned with authentic grace." Karen Valby

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Norman raises absorbing moral quandaries, particularly about the possibilities of forgiveness . ... What Is Left the Daughter resonates with tropes familiar to Norman fans--aborted marriage, traumatized families and unpredictable, devastating violence." Valerie Miner

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"I count seven important deaths--suicides, murders, you name it--and half a dozen minor ones besides, a high body count for any novel. Yet the book is never overwhelmingly dark or morbid, which is a feat. Wyatt's voice and Norman's crisp, readable style keep the story fresh." Daniel Wallace

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Norman is a powerful storyteller with a wistful, whimsical, even magical manner of presenting his imagery worlds. ... If Mr. Norman has a trademark it would have to be the way he unfolds his narratives; his characters tend to act on their destructive impulses, and chaos is sometimes just the way life is." Sharon Dilworth

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"There is an archaic simplicity and precision, a narrow tonal register, to Norman's prose. English is not usually written this way; it certainly is not spoken this way. Yet in Norman's deft handling, the poetry of prose, although highly stylized, is exploited to full effect." Alan Littell

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Though the story is large--murder, passion and a love child, set against the backdrop of a simmering war whose violence sometimes hits close to home--the joy of What Is Left the Daughter is in its small, offbeat details that breathe color into its setting. ... Norman, whose novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist were both nominated for the National Book Award, makes Wyatt a kindly and watchful narrator, painting a picture for his daughter so she can understand from what stuff she is made and of what stories she is woven." Moira Macdonald

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The act that alters the rest of Wyatt's life comes just halfway through the book, and even though it's a short novel, that leaves the whole second half for the narrator's stunned reflection on that tragedy. ... But trust him. More strange revelations await in Wyatt's plea to his daughter." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Wyatt Hillyer's epistolary confession, a gothic tale "about the illogic of love and the violent chaos it leaves in its wake" (New York Times Book Review), explores a darker side of human nature--specifically, the cruelty inflicted by ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances. Norman's plot unfurls steadily, with mounting tension and a restrained but unyielding sense of foreboding rendered all the more threatening by his unhurried, sober tone. The critics commended the "rough-hewn poetry" (Washington Post) of Norman's prose and his ability, despite "the trappings of Greek tragedy" (San Francisco Chronicle), to prevent macabre plot twists from overpowering the story. Compelling and poignant, Hillyer's heartfelt plea for his daughter's compassion will be difficult for readers to resist.

Also by the Author

The Bird Artist (1994): F National Book Award finalist In this riveting, suspenseful tale, it is 1911, and Fabian Vas has just confessed to the murder of a lighthouse keeper in a small Newfoundland village. The events that led to his violent act are slowly uncovered.