Kamis, 04 Maret 2010

A Small Gem of a Book

Flora A Novel Gail Godwin

Flora A Novel Gail Godwin

Flora, By Gail Godwin, is a small gem of a book. It is written in first person, narrated by Helen as an adult, who is remembering her 10th summer when her mother's cousin Flora came from Alabama to babysit while her father worked on the Manhattan Project during the end of World War II.

Helen is both wise and angry. She lost her mother to pneumonia when she was three, her beloved grandmother who raised her has just died, and her close friend Brian has come down with polio. On top of that, another friend is moving away.

Helen sees Flora as an interloper and a simpleton. Flora wears her heart on her sleeve and is quick to cry. This enrages Helen who works hard on being in control and planning out what she says and does with the least possible emotion given away. She is very manipulative and often sets Flora up for failure. Since Flora has poor self-esteem, this is not a difficult thing to do.

The book examines this one summer in Helen and Flora's life. They are quarantined to their home, which Helen calls `The Old One Thousand', because of a polio scare in town. Helen's father had polio as a child and doesn't want Flora or Helen leaving their home or inviting others in. `The Old One Thousand' used to be a half-way house for people recovering from TB or psychiatric issues. Helen and her alcoholic father are now its only residents.

I was able to see the parental child in Helen. She often cared for her father who would be disabled by his alcohol intake. Helen had a typical childhood personality of one who needed control in a life filled with dysfunction and chaos.

Despite the warning from Helen's father, Flora and Helen often invite Finn, a war veteran, now delivery-man for the grocer, into their home for dinner. He is an artist and loves to draw their pictures. Occasionally, the minister also makes a visit.

We watch Helen repeatedly plan ways to undermine Flora and make herself look good. Helen is very smart but she lacks much empathy. She is quick to judge and quick to take action on any small affront or disappointment. She has taken to Finn and has a fantasy that Finn will live in one of the `recoverers' old rooms once her father comes home. Finn had a medical discharge from the army both for a collapsed lung and psychiatric reasons. Helen sees him as a perfect `recoverer' for their home.

This supposedly idyllic summer turns to tragedy due to a turn of events initiated by Helen. She looks back with both remorse and understanding of her young self as she lets the reader know what led up to this denouement.

This book, like all of Gail Godwin's writing, is well-written, suspenseful, and a literary page-turner. I was up most of last night finishing it because I could not put it down. Despite it taking place primarily in one house for a short period of time, it feels universal as we all may know people like Flora or Helen and the type of interactions described.

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5 komentar:

  1. Gail Godwin is a writer with the poise to allow the truth of character and the truth of plot to reveal each other.

    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 (One 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

    I received this as a free digital review copy from the publisher

    BalasHapus
  2. Flora, By Gail Godwin, is a small gem of a book. It is written in first person, narrated by Helen as an adult, who is remembering her 10th summer when her mother's cousin Flora came from Alabama to babysit while her father worked on the Manhattan Project during the end of World War II.

    Helen is both wise and angry. She lost her mother to pneumonia when she was three, her beloved grandmother who raised her has just died, and her close friend Brian has come down with polio. On top of that, another friend is moving away.

    Helen sees Flora as an interloper and a simpleton. Flora wears her heart on her sleeve and is quick to cry. This enrages Helen who works hard on being in control and planning out what she says and does with the least possible emotion given away. She is very manipulative and often sets Flora up for failure. Since Flora has poor self-esteem, this is not a difficult thing to do.

    The book examines this one summer in Helen and Flora's life. They are quarantined to their home, which Helen calls `The Old One Thousand', because of a polio scare in town. Helen's father had polio as a child and doesn't want Flora or Helen leaving their home or inviting others in. `The Old One Thousand' used to be a half-way house for people recovering from TB or psychiatric issues. Helen and her alcoholic father are now its only residents.

    I was able to see the parental child in Helen. She often cared for her father who would be disabled by his alcohol intake. Helen had a typical childhood personality of one who needed control in a life filled with dysfunction and chaos.

    Despite the warning from Helen's father, Flora and Helen often invite Finn, a war veteran, now delivery-man for the grocer, into their home for dinner. He is an artist and loves to draw their pictures. Occasionally, the minister also makes a visit.

    We watch Helen repeatedly plan ways to undermine Flora and make herself look good. Helen is very smart but she lacks much empathy. She is quick to judge and quick to take action on any small affront or disappointment. She has taken to Finn and has a fantasy that Finn will live in one of the `recoverers' old rooms once her father comes home. Finn had a medical discharge from the army both for a collapsed lung and psychiatric reasons. Helen sees him as a perfect `recoverer' for their home.

    This supposedly idyllic summer turns to tragedy due to a turn of events initiated by Helen. She looks back with both remorse and understanding of her young self as she lets the reader know what led up to this denouement.

    This book, like all of Gail Godwin's writing, is well-written, suspenseful, and a literary page-turner. I was up most of last night finishing it because I could not put it down. Despite it taking place primarily in one house for a short period of time, it feels universal as we all may know people like Flora or Helen and the type of interactions described.

    BalasHapus
  3. Micheal Collins22 November 2012 10.32

    A keen observer of life, Gail Godwin is both a student and a teacher of human nature. Her novels tend to be probing studies of characters who struggle with their disconnection from the world around them.

    At the age of ten (going on eleven), Helen Anstruther has already developed the most disagreeable characteristics of her mother, who died when she was three, and of her grandmother Honora, who has just died. Helen has inherited their haughty sense of superiority, their tendency to see the worst in others. Her mother's twenty-two-year-old cousin, Flora Waring, is recruited to look after Helen during the summer, when Helen's father (a principal during the school year) will be away supervising construction of buildings that will house the Manhattan Project. Although Flora has earned a teaching degree and is hoping for a job offer in the fall, she is woefully insecure, a trait that Helen feeds upon. Helen regards Flora as white trash from Alabama, a hugely embarrassing addition to her life. At the same time, she is blind to the faults of the father and grandmother who raised her.

    Two children in town have contracted polio, causing Helen's father to issue an injunction from afar: Helen is not to leave the house. Although Helen complains, she feels a strong connection to the house, still full of her grandmother's things. The house, once a home to recovering tuberculosis patients (less charitably described as "a halfway house for rich malingerers"), is virtually a character in the novel. Helen's isolation isn't truly troubling. She has little use for friends (as one of them complains, she forgets she has them when they aren't around); she lives largely within her own imaginative mind.

    Helen parcels out her time, instructing Flora on the art of being a teacher and, when she can, sneaking a peek at the letters her grandmother wrote to Flora over the years -- letters that reveal family secrets in guarded language that Helen isn't old enough to understand. As Helen makes her way through the summer, she develops a crush on the delivery boy from the grocery store, a young man named Finn whose physical and mental issues earned him a medical discharge from the Army. That he is Flora's age does not deter Helen from viewing Flora as an unworthy competitor for his attention.

    Every now and then an older voice intrudes, an adult Helen filled with unfashionable remorse as she looks back on that formative summer. The richness of the characters is astonishing, given the novel's brevity. While we usually see Flora through Helen's unreliable eyes, we see her from a different perspective when we read Honora's letters or hear Finn describing her. While Helen is convinced that she is spending her summer educating Flora, it is actually Flora who teaches the novel's most valuable lessons.

    Flora is, in fact, the story of the lessons Helen learned from a teacher she despised: that other people's lives are as worthy as her own; that their tragedies are more real, and more serious, than her own self-invented woes; that risking the pain of opening our hearts to others is essential to a fulfilling life. Godwin tells this dramatic story in radiant but understated prose; even a bombshell in the concluding pages explodes quietly. This is a story that touches feelings without obvious manipulation, a book that fills a reader with joy and sorrow in the same instant and leaves the reader wondering how that's possible.

    BalasHapus
  4. Ladonna Foreman20 Desember 2012 03.32

    In Gail Godwin's new novel, "Flora," an adult looks back at a summer set in the nineteen forties in southern Mountain City, the events of which still cause her remorse for her part in them. The only daughter of an alcoholic father, who has gone off for the summer on a mysterious job having to do with the war, ten-year-old Helen is left in the care of her cousin, Flora, who Helen regards as "simple-minded," and who she alternately feels irritated by, and protective of. Helen's mother is dead, her beloved grandmother has passed away, and two local cases of polio have been reported, causing her father (a polio survivor) to quarantine Helen and Flora in their remote house (once a halfway home for alcoholics and the mentally ill). Though she's sophisticated for a girl her age, Helen still has plenty of childish self-absorption and informs a friend (with polio), "This is the worst summer of my life," before wincing at her words. Distraction comes in the form of Finn, a young veteran who delivers groceries, and who's waiting to see if his mental problems will keep him from being honorably discharged. She also filches letters her grandmother wrote to Flora, hoping for clues to family mysteries. To help fill her days (and reconstruct her family), Helen plots to have Finn board with them, but when her father does return, tragedy strikes in ways that none of them could predict.

    The novel deals with similar themes as Godwin's earlier "The Finishing School," and "Unfinished Desires," including betrayal at an early age that haunts those into adulthood, the shaping of that betrayal into the work of the adult artist; and the passionate bonds young girls form with older women. There is plenty of humor in the descriptions which helps keep the pace, as the setting changes little throughout the novel. Many of the characters have a talent for summing up others' in a few witty words and have a keen eye for noting the absurd in the everyday. One character's nose is tilted so far up "a bird could poop in it," while another eats like "a hungry man who has been taught not bolt his food." Of the first meal they invite Finn to, Helen privately notes that it's a pity that they all tried to dress up as they looked better in their regular clothes. Though I felt the consequences of the characters' actions were unfairly harsh and over-the-top, the book does raise intriguing questions about forgiveness, family ties and remorse. Godwin fans will enjoy getting to know the young Helen, her summer guardian (who is more complex than Helen realizes) and the colorful inhabitants of Mountain City during the tail end of World War II. Highly recommended.

    BalasHapus