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Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin

Published by Bloomsbury USA on June 6, 2017

Marcus is ten when his mother dies in an accident. He is sent to live with his great aunt Charlotte, a woman he has never met. Charlotte lives in a beach cottage on a South Carolina island and makes a living painting island landscapes. One of her most popular paintings is of Grief Cottage at the far end of the beach. Before it was partially destroyed in a fire, the cottage was occupied for the summer by a young boy and his parents. The parents died in a storm while searching for the boy, whose body was never found.

Charlotte is reclusive and not particularly interested in, or capable of, raising a ten-year-old boy. Marcus knows he is intruding on her privacy, and while Charlotte does not intend to make Marcus feel unwelcome in her home, Marcus has reason to believe that he is a burden, no matter how helpful he tries to be. Mostly, he tries to stay away so Charlotte can enjoy her solitude. Long walks on the beach to Grief Cottage are a logical way to spend his time.

Gail Godwin’s cover blurb warns the reader that Grief Cottage is a ghost story, but it is primarily the story of Marcus’ struggle to understand his life. Marcus was uprooted once, while his mother was still alive, after he inflicted a savage beating on a friend. This new change in his life, following his mother’s death, might in some ways be welcome as a new beginning.

Is Grief Cottage haunted? Marcus sees the ghost of a boy at the ruins of the cottage, but perhaps he is seeing the manifestation of his own grief. The ghost makes only rare appearances, creating a frame for the rest of Marcus’ experiences on the island.

The reader encounters quite a few digressions in Grief Cottage, from biographical snippets about Alec Guinness (who, like Marcus, did not know his father’s identity) to details of the invented island and its history. Some of the digressions help build setting and flesh out characters, but after a point, they impede the story’s development. On the other hand, information about erosion of the beach and (sometimes futile) efforts to preserve historic places establish the themes of change and resistance to change by hanging onto the past that pervade the novel.

Some aspects of Grief Cottage, particularly certain characters, are a wee bit too pretentious. For example, Marcus spends time with an aging bedridden woman who is engaged in a self-absorbed archeology of herself and has a good cry when she realizes that no self can ever share their entire being with another self. Similar wisdom imparted by other island inhabitants is difficult to endure, simply because it is unrelenting.

Aunt Charlotte often tells Marcus that he is too good to be true. I shared that sentiment. Too good, too thoughtful, too helpful, too courteous. Godwin makes clear that his goodness is motivated by fear of rejection (and by being raised by a caring mother), but his goodness also makes Marcus dull, despite the drama he has endured.

Other aspects of Grief Cottage just didn’t work for me. After spending the novel being a tortured model of goodness, Marcus is inhabited by an imaginary gremlin who coaxes him to do something mildly bad and then punishes him with a self-destructive impulse. The gremlin, unlike the ghost, struck me as a plot device rather than a mental construct that Marcus would actually devise. And since Marcus’ voice, or at least his internal voice, is that of adult with an Ivy League education, I couldn’t accept it as belonging to a middle school boy. In fact, everyone in the novel speaks in the same voice, which seems false given their varying backgrounds.

Still, there is no doubt that Gail Godwin is among the most elegant writers in current literature, and the novel bears reading simply for its graceful language. Despite my reservations about Marcus, I appreciated Godwin’s insights into the island and the people who inhabit it.


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