Ghosts haunt Gail Godwin’s new novel, “Grief Cottage.” Some are actual ghosts, such as the Confederate soldier who sometimes shows up on the South Carolina beach where the story mainly takes place. But when Marcus, the novel’s 11-year-old narrator, visits the abandoned Grief Cottage, he sees a different ghost: the teenage boy who was its last resident. The boy’s parents drowned in Hurricane Hazel in 1954, and he was never found.
Godwin may flirt with the magical, but she deals firmly with the realism of depression and loss. It’s those psychological ghosts that “Grief Cottage” is really about.
The story opens shortly after Marcus’s mother dies in a car accident. As summer begins, he is sent to live at the beach with his only living relative: a sharp-tongued great aunt, a painter with her own demons to contend with.
How an 11-year-old grapples with the death of the only “sure” in his life — his friend’s term for the people you know will always love you — is a question this novel explores, sometimes delicately, sometimes not. Yet it’s the larger mystery of how any of us deals with our ghosts that makes this book most interesting: from the elderly neighbor who prepares for her late son’s visit as if he were still alive, to Marcus’s aunt, whose drinking worsens as she works on a new painting that mines her past.
Marcus, for his part, tries to befriend the boy-ghost. Every day he visits the Grief Cottage near his aunt’s house. Sometimes, he sits quietly, trying to entice the ghost to join him, but when he does, Marcus runs away.
At home, he tries to make himself as useful as possible, keeping the bathroom sparkling clean and doing his aunt’s laundry. He befriends an elderly neighbor and goes shopping for her. “You’re too good to be true,” his aunt tells him more than once.
Of course, Marcus, with the guilt that often plagues survivors, feels she’s right. He’s hiding secrets about his past. His mother had to leave a good job after Marcus beat up his best friend so violently that he almost died. He remembers being sarcastic about his mother’s optimism as their prospects began to dwindle.
And at times, Marcus is too good to be true. He’s awfully knowing for a grief-stricken young boy. He rides his bike, he tells an adult, to “sort out my thoughts.” He sees himself in new school clothes and thinks: “I was definitely on the road to manhood.” While one might excuse this as retrospective narration — Marcus grows up to be a child psychiatrist, we learn in the somewhat clunky epilogue — even then his psychologizing feels too pat, a direct hit rather than a hint.
But Marcus’s story remains beguiling, with its array of Southern characters, each living in a cottage of grief with their own ghosts and their own ways of finding a way forward.
Carole Burns’s most recent book is “The Missing Woman and Other Stories.”
On June 17 at 6 p.m., Gail Godwin will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. politics-prose.com.
By Gail Godwin
Bloomsbury. 336 pp. $27