I felt no big-brotherly protectiveness coming from this watcher, only an intense, almost affronted curiosity. Whatever was looking down at me seemed to be waiting to see what I would do next.
Marcus is eleven years old when his mother dies and with no known father, he’s sent to live with his Great Aunt Charlotte, an eccentric painter, in her little cottage by the sea. It soon becomes apparent that both Marcus and Charlotte are both carrying enormous baggage and often it’s unclear just who is the main caretaker of whom. Aunt Charlotte’s most popular paintings are of a deserted crumbling wreck known as the ‘Grief Cottage.’ Fifty years before during a hurricane, a young boy and his parents disappeared. Their bodies were never found and an air of mystery as well as tragedy lingers on the site ever since. That summer Marcus becomes obsessed with the story of the Grief Cottage and starts making daily visits where he communes with what he believes to be the dead boy’s ghost.
In Marcus, Gail Godwin author of Grief Cottage has found a remarkable narrative voice. A young boy of extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity, but one burdened with deep emotional wounds even before he lost his mother. His full story is revealed to us like a slowly blooming flower, with every revelation revealed like a new petal. Supporting characters like the reclusive Charlotte and neighbors Lachicotte, a mechanic who specializes in restoring vintage cars, and the elderly Coral Upchurch, make for strong, vivid impressions as well. The ghost itself is a surprisingly strong presence and Godwin treads new terrain here. While only Marcus can see the boy’s spirit, everyone on the island is to some extent haunted by ghosts of the past. But the novel stumbles and loses steam in the last fifty or so pages. The ending seems anti-climactic and feels like a letdown. As if Godwin wasn’t sure how to truly resolve the mystery of Grief Cottage and so took the safest way out instead of offering something truly exciting. The same goes for another ‘puzzle’ cleared up on the final page. It’s not really ‘surprising’ or especially revelatory nor was it something we even cared about. Grief Cottage is an excellent use of first person narrative with a truly lyrical voice, but its conclusion ultimately leaves one unsatisfied.
Top photo: Gail Godwin by Dion Ogust