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Grief Cottage

Review

Grief Cottage

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and has been writing intelligent, thought-provoking fiction since the 1960s. Her latest effort, GRIEF COTTAGE, is an examination of several topics: family, memory, faith and ghosts. The ghosts in this case are both literal and figurative depending on the point of view of the character experiencing them.

Our central figure here is Marcus Harshaw. He is 11 years old at the start of the novel and is being raised by his single mother. He never knew his father, who died before he was born. One evening, his mother is driving home when her vehicle hits a patch of black ice. Marcus will never see her alive again after that fatal single-car accident.

Since his father is deceased and there are no other nearby relatives around, Marcus is sent off to live with his great-aunt Charlotte. Charlotte lives alone, very much a recluse, in her beachfront house on the coast of South Carolina. She has had some local fame as an oil painter, usually taking in a good deal of money for her work. Her specialty is scenery or houses, not people, which sort of lends itself to her personality. With few exceptions, Charlotte has distanced herself from the rest of the world and does most of her communication and transactions through her computer. She follows the news just enough to ensure that the world is still out there.

"After regularly spending my review and pleasure reading time with mysteries and thrillers, it's nice to get back to classic fiction. It grounds me. GRIEF COTTAGE felt almost Dickensian --- definitely a nice mix of Dickens and a contemporary author like John Irving."

Marcus is a troubled young man, having to deal with loss and abandonment at a very early age. He is not bitter and fully opens himself up to a new kind of life under the roof of Aunt Charlotte. She shows off her work and shares stories of local history and events with Marcus. The two things that interest him the most are the turtle-hatchlings the local residents care for each year and see safely out to the ocean when the time is right, and the mysterious old, abandoned cottage that has not been lived in for 50 years. That was the date of the last big hurricane to rock the coastline, and the house has since been referred to as Grief Cottage.

As Marcus learns more about Grief Cottage, he finds out that a mother and her young son were staying there when the hurricane hit. Once the mighty storm had pulled away, Grief Cottage was badly damaged and the two residents had disappeared off the face of the earth. What bewildered Marcus the most, and what drove him to dive into a personal research project, was the fact that nowhere were the names of the two missing individuals mentioned.

Charlotte, with both the money she receives from her paintings and the subsidy she is paid for taking him in, treats Marcus to a brand new bicycle. He takes off on his bike every morning and follows the same routine: visit the beach and stop by Grief Cottage. Maybe because of his own personal damage or possibly the fact that he is sensitive in some supernatural way, Marcus makes a connection with the ghost of the young boy who died tragically at Grief Cottage. On a few occasions he even swears that the boy made himself appear to him. Marcus later learns his name --- Johnny Dace --- and sees to it that he pays his respects to Johnny on each visit.

Aunt Charlotte takes a bad fall and ends up spraining her wrist and fracturing her ankle. During the brief time she is hospitalized, Marcus is cared for by an elderly neighbor and possibly only friend of Charlotte's, a wise man named Lachicotte. Lachicotte is a colorful character with a unique way of speaking, and makes quite an impression on Marcus. He is also the one who saves Marcus, along with some local firemen, when Marcus crashes through the floorboards during a visit to Grief Cottage. The ironic thing is that he breaks through to the basement and was found laying atop the skeleton of a young boy --- the remains of Johnny.

Things come full circle for Marcus as the novel sees him jump directly to post-medical school, where he has begun his new career as a psychiatrist. The experience he had with psychiatrists and therapists when he was young left such an impression that he wanted to give something back. There is also an extremely touching section where Marcus reconnects years later with a young boy he knew as Wheezer, probably his best childhood friend, as he is near the end of his life, dealing with terminal cancer.

After regularly spending my review and pleasure reading time with mysteries and thrillers, it's nice to get back to classic fiction. It grounds me. GRIEF COTTAGE felt almost Dickensian --- definitely a nice mix of Dickens and a contemporary author like John Irving. What I found most ironic is that at times the story made me recall Dickens' own GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Throughout the book, Marcus referred to an old British movie called The Ladykillers that starred Sir Alec Guinness. Ironically, Guinness was featured as Pip's friend, Herbert Pocket, in David Lean's 1946 film adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. I'm sure this connection was not lost on Gail Godwin, who has created her own classic characters with this fine work. And Aunt Charlotte is surely no Miss Havisham!

Reviewed by Ray Palen on August 25, 2017

Grief Cottage
by Gail Godwin

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1632867044
  • ISBN-13: 9781632867049