“The day Hans Mohring came to make amends, that day was hell on earth. Two, three, four months earlier? I couldn’t have found a day like that on the map. And now that hellish day’s my permanent address.”
When people write “think”-pieces excoriating Twitter, I always end up puzzled: clearly their Twitter is very different from my Twitter, and yet they seem to have no idea how variable the experience is, or how many of us use it and value it for completely different reasons than the ones they are fixating on. They also often seem strangely helpless: seriously, if your Twitter is “terrible most of the time,” maybe you should follow different people and use it for different conversations.
I was thinking about this because I read Howard Norman’s darkly gripping novel What Is Left the Daughter thanks to a recommendation from Mark Athitakis on Twitter. Mark is one of many people I’ve come to think of as a Twitter friend — though he and I knew each other as bloggers, too, before Twitter was quite so much of a thing. Though I haven’t met most of my Twitter friends in person, I do feel that I have come to know a lot of them pretty well, and I cherish the connections and conversations I have with them. In particular, I don’t have many people near to hand in “real life” to talk to about books (odd, perhaps, to say that as an English professor, but it’s true). Like blogging, Twitter has become a great compensation for that, and there are many books, authors, and indeed entire genres that I have learned about thanks to people I know there.
It’s kind of funny that I came to What Is Left the Daughter by way of someone in Phoenix via Twitter: it’s such an intensely local book — and yet I had never heard of it, or of Howard Norman, before. The novel takes place in Halifax and in the small Nova Scotia town of Middle Economy, on the Minas Basin. (As far as I can tell, there is actually no “Middle Economy,” though there is an Upper and Lower Economy.) It begins in the late sixties but its action is really during the Second World War, a time when the naval port of Halifax was busy with wartime activity and the waters of the North Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence were full of Allied ships, and of German U-boats hunting them. One of the central incidents in Norman’s novel is the real-life sinking of the passenger ferry SS Caribou in October 1942 — one of the novel’s characters is on board.
The character who’s lost on the Caribou is Constance, the narrator Wyatt’s aunt, who with his uncle Donald has taken Wyatt in after both of his parents commit suicide on the same night (each of them jumps off one of Halifax’s harbor bridges). This intensely personal tragedy merges with the general atmosphere of loss that permeates the novel, which focuses on the destructive effects of war on the home front. The constant sense of threat cultivates a corrupting xenophobia that motivates terrible crimes — explicable, as we see, but not forgivable, as they exemplify the reduction of individual people into hated abstractions. In wartime, the novel emphasizes, you have to work harder not to do that, but Donald in particular can’t sustain the effort. He becomes obsessed with his enmity, papering his workshop with news stories about the war, and especially about U-boat attacks. Constance tries to dissuade him from his angry fixation:
You are allowing into our house the wrong Germans out of history, Donald! You’re letting the wrong ones into our house! . . . Donald, those war broadcasts are all murder, aren’t they? All Hitler and death and ships lost at sea. I’m saying Beethoven’s not those things.
Beethoven’s music may make an intangible case for transcending war’s polarities (Kate Atkinson uses a performance of Beethoven’s 9th to the same purpose in A God in Ruins). But the possibility of a good German is embodied more directly in Hans Mohring, a German student studying philology at Dalhousie. Though his family has escaped Hitler’s Germany and is now living in Denmark, Donald is unable to see him as anything but an alien invader, and Hans’ marriage to Donald and Constance’s adopted daughter Tilda sets the stage for a tragedy that is ultimately precipitated by the sinking of the Caribou.
The story is told by Wyatt in a letter to his and Tilda’s daughter Marlais. We know this relationship from the novel’s first page, but it takes the rest of the novel for us to understand why it has been such a fraught one, and especially why Wyatt has not seen his daughter in so many years. Wyatt’s role in the novel’s central crime is an equivocal one: it seemed to me to return us, obliquely, to something his uncle says at the news of yet another ship sunk by the Germans:
Isn’t there one living, breathing soul — where’s Adolf Hitler live? It’s in Berlin, isn’t it? Isn’t there one person in all of goddamn Berlin, Germany, with enough goddamn sense and gumption to shoot Hitler in the head?
In addition to Hitler’s extraordinary culpability, that is, there’s the guilt born by those who stand by and do nothing, and then, in heightening levels of blame, of those who help in whatever way to enable his murderous policies. Wyatt is not guilty, but he’s not innocent either, and the same is true of other characters who have inadvertent roles in other people’s catastrophes — the woman, for instance, whose relationships with both Wyatt’s mother and his father led to their suicides. Though there are grey areas, though, there’s no ambiguity about Hans Mohring, who is wholly a victim of prejudice, of a failure of humanity. Looking at a photograph taken in a Halifax bar that coincidentally captured both Hans and the navigator of the U-boat that sank the Caribou, Wyatt’s friend Cordelia says thoughtfully, “what’s strange is that, as I’m standing here staring at it, I see different Germans. There’s the ones who did harm and Hans who didn’t.”
Wyatt offers Marlais his whole sordid story, knowing that he risks her curiosity turning “abruptly sour to disgust, or worse.” But, as he says, “the truth is the truth, and in the end it can’t be lost to excuses, cowardice, or lies.” At the novel’s end Wyatt expresses his hope that Marlais might prove to be his “anodyne” — that she might help restore him to the community where he no longer belongs. Can the wounds of the past be healed? Norman doesn’t promise it, but Wyatt’s resolute attempt to be honest even though the truth is ugly seems like a step in the right direction. His love for his daughter, too, frames a story of violence and unreason (one that is also, at its heart, a doomed love story) with good that perhaps outweighs the bad, or would, if we could all remember that the most important difference is between those who do harm and those who don’t — and if we could all do better than Wyatt at choosing sides.
I really enjoyed What Is Left the Daughter. It felt original to me — and in addition to being suspenseful, it was also thought-provoking, and evocative of a difficult period in local history. Thanks for the recommendation, Mark!