At the start of Gail Godwin’s “Grief Cottage,” 11-year-old Marcus has come to live with his great-aunt Charlotte at her S.C. beach cottage. Charlotte is an artist. Her humor is as dry as the wine she likes to drink and her demeanor a bit gruff. She meets Marcus with a handshake and the words, “Well, Marcus, here we are.”
Marcus has landed with Charlotte because his mother went to get a pizza for movie night and never returned, killed when her car slid on black ice and went down an embankment. This is not the first loss in Marcus’ life. He doesn’t have a father. Doesn’t know who his father was; his mom was going to tell him when he was older. And then there’s Wheezer, the best friend he lost when Marcus’ temper got the better of him one day.
Marcus is given to introspection and feels things deeply. He likes to take care of people. For instance, he’s the kind of boy who cleans up a bathroom after a friend is ill in it.
That he’s experienced bad times is not lost on Charlotte. She tells him at one point: “Marcus, it grieves me to think how many more unhappy stories you are sitting on.”
Marcus soon decides that Charlotte doesn’t want him. The way he figures it, she only took him in because his mom – as poor as they were (so poor they only had one bed) – had taken out a good insurance policy. He’s the beneficiary but Charlotte gets a monthly stipend. Something she takes pains to explain to him so that everything is aboveboard. For all his introspection, Marcus is not that great at reading people. He believes he has interrupted Charlotte’s solitary life and tries to stay out of her way. We know Charlotte has a good heart and is just worried about the boy.
Marcus, who has never seen the ocean before, becomes mildly obsessed with the sea turtles nesting near his aunt’s home, and with a condemned cottage at the end of the island. It’s been dubbed Grief Cottage because a family who had been vacationing there was killed during Hurricane Hazel. It bothers Marcus considerably that no one knows the name of the family.
Early on, Marcus visits the cottage, which is behind a wire fence covered with “KEEP OUT” signs. Of course, he doesn’t. On his first visit he feels like he’s being watched. On another he sees a boy ghost. “I forced myself to turn around and look straight at the gaping doorway. I could hardly breathe as I stood and offered my full body and face to be seen. And was met by the violent realization that someone was also showing himself to me. Pale and gaunt, the boy slouched against the frame of the doorway, wearing a faded red shirt and jeans and boots. … His face was in shadow. But I could make out its lean contours and the flat unsmiling mouth and the hungry dark pools of his eyes.”
Marcus flies off the porch but later returns, feeling a connection between himself and the dead teenager. You may see where this is going and you’d be right – to a point. Gail Godwin has not written a horror story, though she knows how to make the atmosphere tense and make your skin tingle. At 80, the author, who grew up in Asheville and graduated from UNC, is returning to long-favorite themes: longings and loss, motherless children and the repercussions of death.
The plot is satisfying – and as someone who doesn’t like ambiguous endings – I appreciate that Godwin not only wraps up the loose ends, but also lets us know what people were thinking. And Godwin’s writing is worth savoring. Here is Marcus on a visit to a neighbor:
“I felt like Barrett the dog on his tight leash, straining toward the beguiling waves. There my beguiler sat, approximately the same distance from me as as the waves had been from Barrett this morning, and I wanted to plunge in and immerse myself in whatever she could remember about the boy. My list of questions piled up, but I was on my ‘company’ leash: Lachicotte and I were paying a social call on an ancient neighbor and we each had to take turns telling our news.”
“Grief Cottage” is not the fluffy stuff of many a summer beach read, but it’s well worth a place in your beach bag this summer.
By Gail Godwin
Bloomsbury, 321 pages
Meet the author
Gail Godwin will be reading from her new novel 6 p.m. Thursday at Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh.