In Grief Cottage author Gail Godwin describes a place: an abandoned decaying cottage on the edge of an island, but Grief Cottage also has a non-literal presence in the minds of more than one emotionally troubled character. This is the coming of age story of eleven-year-old Marcus, who following the accidental death of his mother, bounces briefly into the foster system before being sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte on a small South Carolina island. Aunt Charlotte is an artist, used to a solitary life, and Marcus, concerned about being underfoot, quickly becomes fixated on the story of a boy about his age who drowned along with his family, tourists staying at Grief Cottage, in a hurricane fifty years earlier.
Marcus never knew his father, and his identity, if it’s known, is shrouded in mystery. Gradually Marcus’s history unfolds; it’s a life spent in poverty with Marcus and his mother eking out a living, and Marcus, unable to understand his mother’s sacrifices and concerns, instead feels ashamed of her and their living conditions. Once Marcus’s anguish erupted in rage, and the incident that led to a rapid move, but now the rage is buried and wrapped with guilt and grief.
Aunt Charlotte battles her own demons, and while she makes a good living with painting, she also struggles with her past. It’s not too long before it’s obvious that Aunt Charlotte is an alcoholic, but of course, Marcus doesn’t understand this, and after Aunt Charlotte suffers a fall during a binge, he’s proud to be able to open several wine bottles at once.
Since this is a coming of age story, most of the plot concerns Marcus. Left to his own devices, he’s both fascinated and repelled by Grief Cottage, a picturesque but ramshackle dwelling near the shore. Here, Marcus feels the presence of a ghost, the boy who went missing in the hurricane:
I don’t know how long I sat with my back to the door before I felt a change in the air that caused me to tense up. The tension was close to fear, but not the usual kind of fear. This was a brand-new sensation. The longer I sat there straining to stay alert, the stronger the sensation became, until it felt like something was coming closer. Then something made me stand up, as though I was being challenged to show more of myself.
As Marcus punctures the membrane between the living and the dead, this becomes a story of how we deal with death, dying and grief. This is a languorous melancholy tale, beautifully told with an emphasis on the damage we endure and the fragility of life (underscored by the survival struggles of the loggerhead turtles). Over the course of one summer, Marcus explores the island, connecting with various locals, occasionally constructing relationships in his hunger for a father. Marcus is an interesting child: solitary and thoughtful–although occasionally this thoughtfulness strains credulity even given that this is a tale told in retrospect.