Screaming at books: Gail Godwin’s ‘Grief Cottage’

Everything about Grief Cottage called to me. The gorgeous cover. The summary. The author’s note. Gail Godwin refers to her interest in liminal spaces: “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.’” Give it to me! I want all of that!

Conceptually, this novel is a powerhouse. Textually, it falls flat.

(Save me from authors who feel the need to write out the phonetics of dialect—and then remain inconsistent with the rules they have established.)

Grief Cottage follows an 11-year-old boy named Marcus. Raised by a single motherrecently involved in a fatal car accident, Marcus is placed under the care of his great-aunt Charlotte. She is a reclusive painter who lives alone on an island in South Carolina and manages to live off the money she makes with her depictions of the local landscapes.

On the end of the beach is a ramshackle cottage slated for demolition, colloquially called “Grief Cottage” after a family disappeared during a hurricane decades earlier. Soon after arriving on the island, Marcus has an encounter with what he believes to be the ghost of the teenage boy who once lived there.

Marcus spends the majority of his time on the island cleaning up after his aunt, watching after turtle eggs, sorting through his old belongings and attempting to solve the mystery of the ghost.

Marcus is a young, smart boy who has had a lot of tragedy in his life. His mother has died, leaving him with the mystery of a deceased father he only has one photograph of. His aunt, despite her good intentions, is an alcoholic. His aunt’s friend Lachicotte takes it upon himself to keep an eye on Marcus but also makes sure to keep reminding Marcus to act as a guardian to his aunt, arguing that she is incapable of fully taking care of herself.

As I continued reading I was reminded of the movie Secondhand Lions: A young child is left with an estranged relative; family secrets to be uncovered; child attempts to take care of their guardian;  child attempts to discover the secrets of the dead; animals in the backyard (in this case, protected loggerhead turtle eggs). On the surface, I enjoyed these traits.

Despite the book’s tragedy, I never got the sense that the protagonist was, well, sad. The novel very closely follows his interior monologue, so it is occasionally clear that Marcus is in denial and actively chooses not to think about how tragic his life has been up to this point. Although the boy just lost the only parent he had ever known and goes to live with strangers, there never seemed to be a moment in all his thoughts where he realistically would have wallowed in that sadness.

I was also confused about the ghost. The ghost didn’t appear to be as important a character as the summary led me to believe. The dead boy is on the page a handful of moments, but my biggest challenge was that I never felt invited to believe the logic. That is, Marcus explains his child-logic to us regarding ghosts and the supernatural, but I never bought into it. Part of this was the result of his voice being written as extremely well-educated, but the narration seemed to suggest that we, the readers, were experiencing these events immediately after they occurred. The effect was that I frequently felt I was reading more of a personal narrative than organic retrospective thought.

The last fifth of the novel takes a confusing turn, where after spending 200 pages following Marcus over the course of one summer we follow a compressed description of what he gets up to over the following decades, all through his education and a reconciliation with someone from his past. I was left reeling, trying to figure out how all of the different thematic threads I’d been collecting fit into this expanded timeline.

I enjoyed the pieces of Grief Cottage, but they just didn’t add up for me when strung together.

I received a copy of Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage: A Novel from Bloomsbury via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no payment from the publishing house. The book is set for publication June 6, 2017.