BookBrowse Reviews What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

What Is Left the Daughter

A Novel

by Howard Norman

What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman X
What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jul 2010, 256 pages
    May 2011, 256 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

Buy This Book

About this Book



A mesmerizing and morally complex story set in war-time Nova Scotia

Near the end of What Is Left the Daughter, the narrator, Wyatt Hillyer, reflects, "I never believed in the phrase 'it all comes back to me now,' because not all of anything that happened in the past comes back whole cloth." The attempt to reconstruct, understand, and, to a large extent, rationalize the past forms the fascinating subtext of Wyatt's narrative in Norman's tightly crafted novel of love, loss, and wartime.

Like many of Norman's other novels, the protagonist's story begins with a tragedy, when seventeen-year-old Wyatt is orphaned in dramatic fashion in 1941. Forced to start over in the wake of this infamous incident, the young man travels to the small Nova Scotia town of Middle Economy, where his aunt Constance and uncle Donald live. There Uncle Donald teaches Wyatt the trade of building toboggans while Wyatt gradually becomes part of small town life, ordering up coffee and conversation at the local bakery each morning and falling hopelessly, secretly in love with his cousin Tilda, Donald and Constance's adopted daughter.

Wyatt's love for Tilda, however, is blockaded by the arrival of Hans Mohring, a German student who was studying at Dalhousie University when war broke out, who takes a room above the bakery and with whom Tilda falls instantly in love. Meanwhile, Uncle Donald's increasing paranoia about the escalating events of World War II seems validated by the sinking of the Caribou, a Canadian ferry boat which may have been carrying his wife, by a German submarine. In the wake of this tragedy, Hans Mohring becomes the logical (at least to Donald) target of Donald's grief and anger, triggering a series of events that will shape the lives of Wyatt, Tilda, and their families for years to come.

Howard Norman is a master storyteller, packing provocative details into virtually every sentence of this short, but hardly slight, novel. Secondary characters, including the bakery owner, an aspiring stenographer, and a record collector, are depicted as quirky but utterly human. Likewise, the details of life in Middle Economy, including Tilda's aspirations to become a professional mourner, Donald's increasing obsessions, and Wyatt's attempt to master a craft, are simultaneously slightly off-kilter and completely sympathetic.

Wyatt narrates his story as a long letter to his daughter, Marlais, written more than twenty-five years after the sinking of the Caribou. The exact circumstances of Wyatt's separation from Marlais are revealed gradually, heartbreakingly, as Wyatt reveals—piecemeal, as his narrative suggests—the circumstances of Marlais's conception, birth, and childhood. Wyatt's abiding love for his daughter—love he has been almost entirely unable to express previously—comes through consistently and poignantly, as Wyatt tells his daughter about his life, warts and all. "All I had to leave you, really, is what I'm writing here," writes Wyatt before starting his letter. In effect, the novel's readers become stand-ins for Marlais reading the letter from her father. What is left the daughter--and the reader--here is the gift of one man's utterly human, heartbreaking life story.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in July 2010, and has been updated for the May 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Caribou

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...
  • Book Jacket: Killers of the Flower Moon
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    by David Grann
    Voted 2017 Best Nonfiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    The long, sorrowful list of injustices done ...
  • Book Jacket: The Dry
    The Dry
    by Jane Harper
    Voted 2017 Best Debut Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    After receiving a letter from his childhood...
  • Book Jacket: Little Fires Everywhere
    Little Fires Everywhere
    by Celeste Ng
    Voted 2017 Best Fiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    Small towns, big drama. Acclaimed author ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

"Electrifying . . . as beautiful and as icy as the Minnesota woods where it's set."

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Wonder Valley
    by Ivy Pochoda

    A visionary and masterful portrait of contemporary L.A. from the author of Visitation Street.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Autumn

Autumn by Ali Smith

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, and a Man Booker Prize Finalist


Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay: $400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.