Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

Grief Cottage - a novel by Gail Godwin

Posted by mhedwig on June 17, 2017 at 3:40 PM

Recommended. A ghost story, a family story with a mystery at its heart, a testimony to the redeeming power of nature, art and friendship. I enjoyed this more than any other Gail Godwin book I've ever read. 

Its young hero is 11-year-old Marcus Harshaw, recently orphaned. His hardworking single mother -- a furniture factory worker in North Carolina -- went out for pizza for the two of them one night and was killed in a car crash. Marcus is sent to live with his one living relative: Aunt Charlotte Lee, a successful artist on an island off the South Carolina coast. She is old, gruff but not unkind, wedded to her solitary schedule and her several bottles daily of red wine. But she makes room for Marcus in her life, expecting him, nonetheless, to amuse himself during the summer days until school starts.

Marcus is lonely, friendless. Before coming to South Carolina he had a violent falling-out with his former best friend i, Shelby Forster, a.k.a. Wheezer because of his asthma. Wheezer is the son of the prominent old family who own the furniture factory where Marcus's mother worked. Trouble between the two boys began the first time Wheezer came to visit Marcus in the tiny one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother,  and Marcus showed him a photograph of a man his mother had told him was his father. (She had promised to tell him the whole story one day -- but her premature death prevented that.)

Wheezer was freaked out by something on his visit to Marcus's home and fled without having the lunch he'd come for; the next day at school he told everyone that Marcus slept in the bed with his mother (which was true, there wasn't room for two beds in the cramped flat) and that he was his mother's "little husband." Marcus, enraged, beat Wheezer so badly that his former friend nearly lost an eye. After that they spoke no more. 

Now, in South Carolina with great tracts of time to fill on his own, Marcus becomes involved with a local sea turtle rescue effort, helping to monitor the state of the dunes where eggs are known to reside. He also is befriended by an older man, a friend of Aunt Charlotte -- Lachicotte Hayes, car restorer and scion of one of the island's oldest families. Lachicotte becomes like the father he never had. He takes Marcus to buy a bike and that opens up a new scope for the boy's days.

Marcus becomes fascinated by a  derelict house at the north end of the island, subject of some of his aunt's most atmospheric paintings. Called "Grief Cottage" by the locals, it got its nickname from the fate of a family -- a mother, father and their teenaged son --  who rented it just in time to be killed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Marcus is disturbed by the fact that no one seems to know anything about the family, not even their names. Their bodies were never found. 

Marcus bikes to the cottage every morning and evening and sits on the porch -- and it is there, one day, that he senses movement behind him and turns to see "the ghost boy" -- a wordless presence leaning in the doorway, dressed in the clothes of an earlier era. After that, Marcus converses with the ghost boy on his visits, keeping his back to the doorway so that he doesn't make the ghost -- or himself -- uncomfortable, telling the kid everything that's on his mind: his worries about the soon-to-be-hatched turtles; his loneliness; his concern about Aunt Charlotte's ever increasing wine intake. He senses an ebb and flow in the ghost's presence - a keen interest at some times, an aversive withdrawal at others.

The plot unfolds at the easy pace of a beach summer: the turtles hatch;  Aunt Charlotte gets help for her drinking and Lachicotte stays with Marcus in her absence;  through an elderly summer resident, Coral Upchurch, Marcus learns more about the ghost boy -- Johnny Dace was his name, and he was the friend of Mrs. Upchurch's late son when Billy Upchurch was a teenager.  "A bad influence," Mrs. Upchurch says. The remaining mystery of the ghost boy is solved  in a dramatic scene when Marcus visits Grief Cottage, driven there by a grief of his own.

The book ends with the older Marcus, now a doctor about to begin his residency in psychiatry. His old friend Wheezer contacts him, wanting to repair their friendship while there are still some days left to him as a terminal cancer patient. Marcus reunites with his friend, and in that meeting the book's final question is answered, the final mystery of Marcus's life resolved. 

The island scenery is beautifully evoked; the turtle subplot is engaging. The ghost is done just right. One of the aspects of the book I found most moving was the capacity for friendship between so many people of widely disparate ages and backgrounds. Older people in particular are rendered as full, vibrant, vital characters with abiilities and ambitions, and I appreciated that. The ending is especially satisfying, with a twist I didn't see coming. 

I switched back and forth between listening to the Audible version of the book and reading it on my Kindle. Each has its own merits. Jacob York's narration was often excellent -- especially with the voices of Lachicotte Hayes and Aunt Charlotte. Unfortunately I didn't like his voice for the young Marcus; it sounded priggish and some of the  pronunciations were overly punctilious -- "Ahnt" Charlotte, "syootcase" and "dyoon" for suitcase and dune; for a young boy raised in North Carolina I would have preferred a softer Southern accent, less proper. When it got to be too much I turned to the Kindle. This showed me that the various reading media are not created equal. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and ultimately I found myself wishing for an actual  printed book , so I could more easily search and backtrack and savor, and have a sense of the scope and pace of the novel that e-readers and audiobooks don't give.

Maybe I'll have to get a third copy!  

Categories: Fiction