Flora by Gail Godwin: More Atonement than The Turn of the Screw

From the opening paragraph of Gail Godwin’s Flora we know that things will end badly. Helen, now a writer, looks back to the summer of 1945 when she turned eleven. Her father has gone to work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for what is later revealed to be the Manhattan Project, leaving Helen in the care of Flora, her mother’s cousin. After her mother’s death, Helen was brought up largely by her beloved grandmother who has died earlier that year. The older Helen portrays her younger self as a precocious self-regarding little girl, quick to judge all but herself. Flora’s easy tears are seen as a weakness, or worse, a needy affectation. When one of her best friends is struck down with polio it’s something of a nuisance, particularly as it results in her father confining both Flora and her to their house. She neglects her best friend and is treated to some very satisfying home truths when Annie rings to say she is moving away. When a handsome young war veteran delivers the groceries Helen is struck with a massive crush and is more than a little miffed by the attention he pays to Flora.

Godwin cleverly constructs her narrative, scattering hints throughout and reminding us that her narrator is not entirely reliable in her reminiscences. Although we know that there will be no happy ending to Helen’s summer, Godwin’s skill is such that what happens still feels shocking and intensely sad. Had I not been prompted by both the book’s press release and the author’s website it wouldn’t have occurred to me that Henry James’ sinister ghost story The Turn of the Screw was the inspiration for Flora, although there’s a clue in the title. For me it brought to mind Ian McEwan’s Atonement which in turn reminds me of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. Whatever the influence or inspiration, this exploration of remorse and regret is a quietly excellent novel in its own right. And something quietly excellent is just what I needed after yesterday’s Amazon rant which has sparked a much calmer post from Heavenali entitled Changing my book buying ways. Has rather a nice C&W ring to it!

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