Gail Godwin’s “Flora” sneaks up on you. The premise is small, but ambitiously so in the “small, square, two inches of ivory” sense that Jane Austen used to describe her novelistic palette. It is the 1940s in the South, and Flora tells the story of a few characters and one summer.
Helen, 10, lives in a ramshackle house on a mountain in Tennessee. Her mother died when Helen was 3, and she grew up being cared for by her disaffected, alcoholic father and her overly proper grandmother, Nonie, whom Helen adored. Nonie dies right as her father leaves to spend the summer working at Oak Ridge (on some secret war-related project). Her cousin Flora, a 22-year-old woman from poorer relations in Alabama, comes to stay with Helen.
Helen is the kind of girl who, at 10 going on 11, knows everything. She looks down on Flora, considers herself more adult than adults, and expects adulation. She describes Flora as “Kind of naive. Huge inferiority complex,” and disdains Flora’s clothes: “I felt she was filling our house with more inferior stuff from Alabama.” When her father passes out in the kitchen, Helen wipes his blood and then expects “fatherly praise for being just where I was needed with the wet cloth.” He swears at her, instead.
Reading a snotty girl recount a boring summer can be, well, a bore. But stick with her. Helen is retelling the story as an old woman, a writer who knows that memory is just “another narrative form,” as unreliable as Helen’s girlhood perception of Flora. Helen calls her simple-minded; Finn, the veteran who delivers their groceries, calls her “simple hearted,” or pure at heart. Over the summer, Helen will learn that her perceptions of her grandfather were an invented memory, too.
As the events of the summer build to a climax, we grow along with Helen to realize she may have everything, and everyone, wrong. As Flora is set to depart, Helen makes mistakes that would later cause Helen a lifetime of cynicism and “remorse [she] is still growing into.”
The ending is tumultuous, but Godwin, the author of 12 previous novels and a three-time National Book Award finalist, never overreaches. Nor, unlike her young protagonist, does she show off. She draws out the haunting Big Questions — loss, regret, family bonds — as the novel progresses, and then she leaves them, smartly and humbly, for the reader to answer.
Anne Trubek is the author of “A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses.”