Summary and book reviews of What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

What Is Left the Daughter

A Novel

by Howard Norman

What Is Left the Daughter
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Book Summary

Seventeen-year-old Wyatt Hillyer is suddenly orphaned when his parents commit suicide, causing him to move to a small-town, and setting in motion the novel's chain of life-altering passions, including the fathering of a beloved daughter.

Howard Norman, widely regarded as one of this country's finest novelists, returns to the mesmerizing fictional terrain of his major books--The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Haunting of L--in this erotically charged and morally complex story.

Seventeen-year-old Wyatt Hillyer is suddenly orphaned when his parents, within hours of each other, jump off two different bridges--the result of their separate involvements with the same compelling neighbor, a Halifax switchboard operator and aspiring actress. The suicides cause Wyatt to move to small-town Middle Economy to live with his uncle, aunt, and ravishing cousin Tilda.

Setting in motion the novel's chain of life-altering passions and the wartime perfidy at its core is the arrival of the German student Hans Mohring, carrying only a satchel. Actual historical incidents--including a German U-boat's sinking of the Nova Scotia-Newfoundland ferry Caribou, on which Aunt Constance Hillyer might or might not be traveling--lend intense narrative power to Norman's uncannily layered story.

Wyatt's account of the astonishing--not least to him-- events leading up to his fathering of a beloved daughter spills out twenty-one years later. It's a confession that speaks profoundly of the mysteries of human character in wartime and is directed, with both despair and hope, to an audience of one.

An utterly stirring novel. This is Howard Norman at his celebrated best.

How Your Father Became an Apprentice
in Sleds and Toboggans in the Village
of Middle Economy, Nova Scotia

In The Highland Book of Platitudes, Marlais, there’s an entry that reads, “Not all ghosts earn our memory in equal measure.” I think about this sometimes. I think especially about the word “earn,” because it implies an ongoing willful effort on the part of the dead, so that if you believe the platitude, you have to believe in the afterlife, don’t you? Following that line of thought, there seem to be certain people—call them ghosts—with the ability to insinuate themselves into your life with more belligerence and exactitude than others—it’s their employment and expertise.

I imagine that your mother informed you of this—maybe she didn’t—but let me say it directly. My own mother, Katherine, and my father, Joseph, leapt from separate bridges in Halifax on the same evening. I was seventeen. Oh, it was ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What Is Left the Daughter begins with a love triangle. How many other triangular relationships appear in the book? Why, do you think?
  2. How do Wyatt and Reese Mac Isaac interact with each other? Were you surprised by Wyatt's response to and relationship to her? Why do you think Howard Norman chose telephone operator as Reese's profession?
  3. "Maybe I take things with the radio too personally," (p. 3) Wyatt says. Why? What do radios mean to him? How do they appear throughout the book and what is their significance?
  4. The Highland Book of Platitudes is referred to often throughout What Is Left the Daughter (see, in particular, pp. 48–49); what is its significance? What are platitudes, and why ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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.   (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

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Media Reviews

Library Journal - Joy Humphrey

The recurring images of music, water, and war make this a haunting novel not soon to be forgotten.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Norman’s writing is effortless, and his plot is grand in scope but studded with moments of tenderness and intimacy ...That Norman is able to achieve so much in 250 pages is a testament to his mastery of the craft.

Kirkus Reviews

"Starred Review. It is extraordinary that a story which carries such a weight of sorrow is never depressing, but Norman the master craftsman pulls it off."

Reader Reviews

Mij Woodward

Wonderful Novel
This book was SO GOOD. The setting, the history, the poignant tale of the father and his daughter. The story stays will stay with me forever.

Deby

What is Left...Amazing
Sometimes in life you discover a book so amazing that you find you carry it with you weeks after you have finished its last word...such is What is Left the Daughter. Alabama Booksmith sent this novel to me as a part of its signed first edition ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Caribou

Although Donald's growing suspicions about Hans Mohring and other Europeans cross the line into obsession, some American readers may be surprised to learn just how active German U-boats were in Canadian waters during World War II. (U-boat is the anglicized version of unterseeboot, meaning undersea boat, i.e. a submarine).

During 1942, the German military mounted a series of strategic attacks on individual ships in the waters off the coast of Canada. These submarine attacks were intended to break up the formation of convoys and to disrupt the potential of North American naval activity in European waters. Because Canada had already committed a large proportion of their forces to fight overseas and their warships to escort ...

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