Among the several spirits haunting this tale is “The Turn of the Screw,” that ghost-free ghost story from 1898. Godwin is pursuing something very different from “the depths of the sinister” that Henry James plumbed, but you’ll catch wisps of his ectoplasm on these pages. Once again, we have a nervous young governess in a spooky old dwelling, while the gentleman of the house is away doing God knows what; there’s even an older maid and a red-haired handyman — and, of course, a character named Flora.
Those echoes of James’s classic, though, aren’t what makes this thoughtful new novel so engaging. The story opens in June 1945, not with terror but with sorrow: “There are things we can’t undo,” Helen says portentously, “but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.”
The incidents of this plot are daringly few: A boring summer during which nothing happens is a challenge most novelists should avoid. Godwin, though, has the psychological sensitivity to make these still, humid days seem fraught with impending consequence. Although Helen is only 10, all the real drama of her life seems to have taken place before we meet her. Her mother died years earlier; her beloved grandmother has died recently; and her functionally alcoholic father must go off to work on a secret project in Oak Ridge, Tenn. So that she won’t be left alone in her crumbling, isolated house, arrangements are made for her mother’s cousin to care for her.
Helen knows Cousin Flora a little; she saw her weeping sloppily at her grandmother’s funeral — “a typical Flora flagellation.” She’s single, 22 years old, and hoping to get a teaching job in the fall. But there’s something childlike about her. For one thing, she can’t drive, and she’s reduced to tears by any spore of anxiety or sentimentality. Helen suspects she’s “the slightest bit slow-witted.” She’s utterly incapable of delivering or receiving sarcasm, which makes Helen feel both empowered and disarmed. “What if there were ways I was going to have to take care of Flora?” she wonders during their first few awkward days.
A polio scare in town keeps these two trapped in the house — the little prig seething at her callow guardian. There’s an ominous touch of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Helen’s father rarely calls; one of her school friends is hospitalized; another moves away after telling her she never wants to talk to her again. Their only regular visitors are a maid and the delivery man, a discharged soldier named Finn, whom both Flora and Helen are attracted to. “There was something about his hair that made him resemble a puppy run through a bath,” Helen says, a reminder that, for all her sophistication, she’s completely inert to the sexual charges electrifying the air.
The success of this trim novel rests entirely on Godwin’s ability to maintain the various chords of Helen’s voice, which are by degrees witty, superior, naive and rueful. Raised on books and her grandmother’s advice, the bright little girl has developed a comically antique manner of speaking — and the snobbery to go with it. It annoys her that Flora is so “indomitably cheerful.” She’s constantly correcting her guardian’s diction (“It’s a study, not an office.”). She’s aware of falling into her “smartypants mode” but usually can’t help herself. It troubles her that her cousin “shows no discrimination about people.” Fed up one afternoon with Flora’s floundering efforts to entertain her, Helen finally suggests, “Why don’t we each go to our own room and replenish ourselves?” Do 10-year-olds talk like that? Well, Helen does — that’s the point: She’s a flawless blend of precocious sophistication and youthful cluelessness. And your faith in the possibility of “her strange childhood” is the measure of this novel’s unsettling effectiveness.
What Helen can’t fathom — as a child or an adult — is Flora’s guilelessness, her complete lack of pride or emotional guardedness, qualities she eventually associates with the old-fashioned term “single-hearted.” Many years later, the narrator asks herself, “Something had been left out of her, but was that something her virtue or her deficit?” How cleverly that question keeps Helen from asking about her own virtue and deficit.
Like Marilynne Robinson, Godwin is repelled by the saccharine psychology of our age. In her finest books, including the three that have been finalists for the National Book Award, we confront spiritual matters in unusually hard terms. With the same disdain she displayed during her formative years, the adult Helen observes, “Remorse went out of fashion around the same time that ‘Stop feeling guilty,’ and ‘You’re too hard on yourself,’ and ‘You need to love yourself more’ came into fashion.” She goes on: “Remorse derives from the Latin remordere: to vex, disturb, bite, sting again (the ‘again’ is important). It began as a transitive verb, as in ‘my sinful lyfe dost me remord.’ ” Such didactic moments are, thankfully, rare in this novel, but that keen intelligence propels Helen into a very uncomfortable place.
Her recollection of that tragic summer, turned over and over in her mind for years, is something between a search for understanding and a mournful confession. But finally it’s a testament to the power of storytelling to bring solace when none other is possible.
At 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 18, Gail Godwin will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. Call 202-364-1919.
Charles is fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.