Friday, June 7, 2013

"Flora," by Gail Godwin

It is hard to stay interested in a book in which so little actually “happens.” Yet Gail Godwin, in “Flora” (Bloomsbury, 2013), manages to make a rather static situation simmer with tension, because of all the family history so very present in every minute of the story. The situation is a classic example of a few characters’ being confined in a small space, and then one or two outsiders entering that space and tilting the precarious peacefulness of the original characters and situation. The two main characters are the precociously bright ten-year-old Helen and the 22-year old Flora, a relative who is taking care of Helen in Helen’s family’s house for a summer while her father is away doing secret war work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. They are mostly isolated in the house, because of a local polio scare, and see very few visitors. Further isolating them is that one of Helen’s friends has gotten polio and gone to a hospital; another friend has moved away. Very present throughout the story, in spirit, are Helen’s long-dead mother and her recently deceased and much-beloved grandmother, Nonie, and Helen’s father, although he is away throughout most of the story. The house itself, on a hill just outside a small town in North Carolina, is almost a character in itself; it is roomy and has a long history as a sanitarium as well as a family home, but now is badly decaying and feels isolated. The main focus of the story is the evolving relationship between the very clever Helen and the naïve, “heart-simple” Flora. Helen is teaching herself psychological skills such as manipulating Flora to do what she, Helen, wants her to do. Helen is not a bad child, but her precocity makes her too powerful for her age or for her own good. Yet we sympathize with her because of all her losses. Helen is also the narrator of the novel, so we readers are led to see things from her perspective. So, although nothing very big “happens” during the course of the novel, the weight of all that has happened before, and the impact of an event at the end, when something big finally happens, bring import and tension to everything in between, during that fateful summer. This novel is, finally, fascinating psychologically, as well as a slice of life from a certain time and place in American history (the South during World War II, suffused with all the history that has come before). Gail Godwin, always so good at creating atmosphere, has done so again in “Flora.”

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