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An Attempt at Repentance
ARKESH AJAY | Issue Dated: February 9, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Flora | An Attempt at Repentance | Gail Godwin |

Amongst the many things, Flora is, it is most pronouncedly an account of how your childhood changes shape when you are in it, and when you look back at it years later as an adult. A seventy-year old Helen Anstruther recounts the eight weeks of a summer when she was ten years old, and was under the charge of her twenty-two-year old cousin Flora, a girl with “The gift of tears” who “Burbled and spilled herself out like an overflowing brook”. The year was 1945, Helen’s mother had been dead a long time, she had recently lost her grandmother, and her father was working on a secret project for World War II, in Oakridge, Tennessee. Her best friends were either in the hospital having suffered a polio stroke, or were moving out of town with their family. As the girls are quarantined into the house in view of the rumor of the polio having turned into an epidemic, Helen finds herself trapped with Flora. And what follows fills our narrator with a deep sense of remorse, and reverberation of atonement even sixty years later.

Remorse, and atonement - Gail Godwin begins the novel with a deep sense of repentance. “There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.” It is a brave admission from a narrator; admission of one’s guilt, of one’s culpability, even before getting into the story. Most narrations, at some level, are defense of one’s actions – a contrived attempt to make the reader see the world as the protagonist himself or herself did. Flora is not one of those narratives.

Flora “Was the first older person I felt superior to”, Helen tells us at the onset. She resists the idea of Flora taking care of her, and is more troubled by the suspicion that there were “Ways I was going to have to take care of Flora”. Though being the precocious child Helen was, this did have its “Gratifying moments but also its worrisome side”. As a ten year old, Helen had assumed herself to be a full grown adult. Upon the death of her grandmother (Nonie), an event that led to Flora’s arrival to the Anstruther residence in the first place, Helen moved into Nonie’s room which seemed to be “Inviting me to stretch my legs and arms into its extra adult space and to observe life from a larger field of vision”. This move wasn’t only physical; Helen begins to channel Nonie into her everyday actions. “What would Nonie have said” – this eclipsed Helen’s own responses to everything. And this also became the starting point of her condescending attitude towards almost everyone around, most of them all, towards Flora.

To Helen, Flora was “Simple-minded”, and “All of her seemed to be on the same level, for anyone to see”. Flora was everything a haughty ten-year old rejected as being unworthy, only to realize years later to be “As enigmatic as it is basic to life”. “Something had been left out of her, but was that something her virtue or her deficit?” Flora lacked layers, she seems to have no defenses, and never fought back, or stood against ill treatment. Though, at times this seemed empowering, mostly it only disarmed Helen, and annoyed her further. After all, Flora’ cheerfulness in the face of Helen’s scorn only made Helen more aware of how powerless she actually was over her cousin.

The entry of Finn, an army-man who had now turned into a deliveryman for the local grocery, evokes romantic pining in both cousins. As one could assume the natural course of things to be, Finn reciprocates only the elder cousin’s interests, and this angers Helen no ends. This one story turn illustrates what Helen had turned into - a girl with a skewed sense of her place in her own life. She was surely an intelligent child, full of a sense of curiosity, but lacked a sense of solicitude or a true account of her own maturity. And though it may be easy to do so, you can’t really hold a ten-year old child trapped in a lonely life full of abandonment, responsible for whatever she had become.

Gail Godwin’s writing assumes a rare character– this is a young girl’s priggish voice as being narrated by an adult who now has the hindsight to know better. The novel is often witty, often rueful, and is always filled with a sense of an impending ruination. But, at the end of it all, Flora is an attempt at repentance, a confession born out of a deep yearning for peace. This may be an impossible journey, as wisdom tells us, but in Helen, Godwin has surely constructed a remarkably honest penitent.

Author : Gail Godwin
Publisher : Bloomsbury
EDITION: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-408-84087-0
PAGES: 288
PRICE: Rs 499

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017