Marcus Harshaw is eleven years old, but he has an old soul.
He and his mother lived together in semi-poverty sharing a bedroom. An only child, he was studious and dependable. Serious and academically advanced, Marcus excelled at school and helped his Mum who worked several part-time jobs… that is until one night she went out to get them a pizza and died in an automobile accident. Afterward, Marcus spent a short while in foster care until he went to live with his great aunt Charlotte Lee who lived on an island in South Carolina. An island three miles long and two-tenths of a mile wide.
Charlotte is a laconic, solitary person. Some might say eccentric. She is his grandmother’s sister – an artist – an alcoholic. She is unerringly kind to Marcus and keeps her three bottle a day wine drinking habit under ‘control’. Marcus, at eleven, is always cognizant of the fact that he was foisted upon her and that he is invading her precious solitude. She lives on the beach in an old cottage which she had renovated herself. Now, she spends her time painting pictures of the local scenery to sell to well-heeled tourists and makes a good living with her art. One subject of her paintings is an old, derelict cottage down at the other end of the beach, one the locals call “Grief Cottage”. It is this cottage that inspired her to paint, and it is this cottage that Marcus is drawn to…
Though Marcus thinks she is merely tolerating him, Charlotte grows very fond of him over time.
“You’re good company, Marcus. You listen and put things together.”
The book is mostly taken up with Marcus’s first summer living with Aunt Charlotte. An eleven year old boy reeling from the loss of his mother – suddenly living in an environment different to any he had known before. The beach became his solace. He would take his new bike up to Grief Cottage for a daily pilgrimage to visit with what he called ‘the ghost boy’. He talked to the loggerhead turtle eggs which were beneath the sand near his aunt’s boardwalk to the beach. He did the grocery shopping, the laundry, and all the house cleaning for the reclusive Charlotte. He made the meals and visited with the nonagenarian next-door neighbor, Coral Upchurch. He painstakingly unpacked the boxes that were all he had left of his mother and his former life. He found his mother’s GED textbooks and studied them thinking that if he could pass the GED he would be out from under Charlotte’s feet and she might be proud of him. The highlight of his summer was when the baby loggerheads ‘boiled’ up from under the sand and made their precarious trek to the ocean.
Marcus fears that his introspective thoughts coupled with his ‘seeing’ of the ghost boy might make him lose his grip. He realizes he has always felt unwanted.
“I needed to keep the different parts of myself in their proper places or I could go insane. Aunt Charlotte would be in her rights to send me to an institution.”
If I had a problem with anything in this novel it would be that I thought Marcus’s character was too mature for his tender age of eleven. His thoughts were so intelligent, empathetic and advanced… He shouldered responsibilities that most eleven year-old boys would be completely unable to cope with. How many eleven year olds do you know who would ‘worry’ over the state of dirty bed linen? who would clean and disinfect the bathroom after a stranger had used it for an explosive bowel movement?
The cover of this novel is perfect. Just as I imagined Aunt Charlotte would have painted it. The setting highly resonated with me as just this past March my husband and I drove down to South Carolina and visited some islands there, making the scenery accurately vivid in my mind. It reminded me of the history of the use of ‘Gullah-blue’ or ‘Haint blue‘ paint used to ward off evil spirits in South Carolina. I loved that the book mentions “Brookgreen Gardens” which we visited and loved. The book even mentioned my favorite brand of tea, Typhoo.
“Grief Cottage” is a memorable novel that explores the concepts of memory, grief, and of loss. Slow paced, yet insightful and sensitive, the novel is highly recommended to anyone who likes to read atmospheric literary fiction.
Gail Kathleen Godwin is an American novelist and short story writer. She has published one non-fiction work, two collections of short stories, and eleven novels, three of which have been nominated for the National Book Award and five of which have made the New York Times Bestseller List.
Godwin’s body of work has garnered many honors, including three National Book Award nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Five of her novels have been on the New York Times best seller list.
Gail Godwin lives and writes in Woodstock, New York.