"Grief Cottage" By: Gail Godwin

Jul 3, 2017

“Grief Cottage”

Author: Gail Godwin  

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 336

Price: $20.00 (Hardcover)

Because Gail Godwin lived for a good while in Asheville, North Carolina and has lived in Woodstock, New York since 1976, it is easy to forget she is an Alabama woman, raised in Birmingham.

Godwin had huge early successes with the novels “A Southern Family” and” A Mother and Two Daughters” which has sold over a million and a half copies.

Just last year, Godwin won the Alabama Library Association Author Award for Adult Fiction for the novel “Flora,” which was itself a best seller.

“Grief Cottage” is her newest, her fifteenth novel, but deals with a theme she has been wrestling with for 50 years. In her letter to the reader Godwin writes: “I’m drawn to those crossover places in ghost stories and novels: the hair-thin junctions between sanity as we understand it and what we call ‘the other side.’”

Her most famous story, perhaps, “Dream Children,” explores this territory. A young woman is visited by the ghost of the infant she lost, but the visits are perfectly real to her, and offer solace. Godwin again: “Connoisseurs of the ghost story maintain that a truly satisfying one leaves a window for the possibility of a reality we haven’t discovered yet.”

“Grief Cottage” tells the story of a lonely eleven-year-old boy, Marcus Harshaw, named after Marcus Aurelius. And Marcus is a meditative lad. He has never known a father; his mother is killed in a car wreck and Marcus goes to live with his great-aunt Charlotte, an eccentric single woman, on a small island off the South Carolina coast. The island is beautiful and mostly empty, like Pawley’s Island, but located near Charleston, like the Isle of Palms.

Aunt Charlotte, a recluse and artist, has real talent, but mainly earns a comfortable living producing paintings, of various sizes, of Grief Cottage, a falling-down house at the end of the island where a family was drowned during Hurricane Hazel 50 years earlier. Mother and Father were found but their son’s body was never located.

Aunt Charlotte’s paintings capture the haunting quality of the house itself. Exploring the island, Marcus visits the cottage and meets up with the ghost of the drowned boy, “pale and gaunt…wearing a faded red shirt and jeans and boots” and with “unsmiling mouth and . . . hungry, dark pools … [for] eyes.” At first Marcus feels he is being watched, even “appraised.” He feels from the boy “an intense, almost affronted, curiosity.” Frightened, Marcus runs.

He tells no one but, despite the danger, returns often, hypothesizing that the boy’s spirit is unable to rest, his body not having being found and buried. Marcus even conducts experiments across space: he tries to send emanations of himself to the boy then hears a voice say “you come back.”

Marcus is a kind, tender-hearted boy, but has had at least one episode of rage and is given to profound depression. Aunt Charlotte is coping with trauma from her childhood also, thus the reclusive life and several bottles of wine a day. Both aunt and nephew will endure crises over the course of this summer, coming to terms with their demons.

At the foot of their dune by the sea is a buried clutch of turtle eggs, about to boil out and struggle to make it to the sea without being eaten by birds or other predators. Life is not a piece of cake for anyone.

Whether the ghost is “real” or the creation of a distressed psyche becomes irrelevant. As in Godwin’s favorite story, Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” it could go either way, and despite the heat of the South Carolina summer, there is a peculiar chill in the air.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.