What Is Left The Daughter sneaks up like a slow-building summer storm, one that goes from a sprinkle to a torrent over the course of a long, muggy day. For its first half, readers will be forgiven for wondering if author Howard Norman is just going to have a whole bunch of bad stuff happen to his characters without dealing with the emotional ramifications, but right around that halfway mark, he starts to pull his loose ends together and push his emotional beats into making sense, and the effect is often devastating.
Norman’s protagonist is teenager Wyatt Hillyer, who has to move in with his aunt, uncle, and adopted cousin Tilda after his parents throw themselves off of two separate bridges over the same woman within a couple hours of each other. Norman leaves behind the suicides so suddenly (dealing with them in the matter of a few pages) that it becomes easy to believe he’s writing a book about a series of events, rather than how those events affect the characters. This pattern repeats itself as Wyatt gets involved in a destructive love triangle with Tilda and her German lover, Hans. Since all this takes place during World War II, Hans comes under suspicion from Wyatt’s uncle, and events unspool tragically from there.
The novel is structured as a long letter Wyatt is writing to his daughter late in life, and this often means that Norman is frustratingly unable to get inside the other characters’ points of view, particularly as Wyatt’s is emotionally anemic. He seems to shut himself off after his parents die, and he merely observes what happens for the bulk of the novel. Huge, traumatizing events visit him, and he goes along with a shrug. In particular, his uncle Donald’s gradual turn toward madness at reports of U-boats sinking Canadian ships happens with regrettable suddenness.
But a curious thing happens at the book’s halfway point. The major plot events have mostly come to their end, and Norman begins unleashing a series of quiet emotional cataclysms that roil his characters underneath their placid surfaces. Norman writes these slow exhalations of pure feeling extraordinarily well, and the way he lets the cumulative weight of the novel settle in around his characters suggests that this was his scheme all along, to push Wyatt to the brink and only then let the cracks in his facade begin to widen.
Readers may find this structure almost unbearable, and Norman only just barely pulls off the trick. But there are passages as moving as any in recent fiction near this novel’s end, and the slow way Norman portrays how Wyatt lets in more and more of what he’s been feeling all along turns the novel into a mystery of sorts. What’s it like when a cipher begins to comprehend how much he’s shut himself off? And at what cost comes the redemption he’s been waiting for all along, without even knowing it?