Even though he is eleven years old, Marcus Harshaw is remarkably good at hiding his suffering. His mother died in a car crash. They had been living in poverty in Missouri before that terrible day and Marcus had been in counseling for seriously injuring his best (only) friend. And yet, when we meet him at the outset of Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, Marcus is contained and extremely helpful to the great-aunt who will be taking care of him. It’s only over the course of the novel that we learn how much emotional turmoil is roiling below the surface. Grief Cottage is extraordinarily complex, peppered with family secrets like land mines.
After a short stint in foster care, Marcus is dispatched to an island off the coast of South Carolina to live with his great-aunt. All he knows before this is that his great-aunt is an eccentric, solitary artist, scorned by his grandmother. Aunt Charlotte is not a warm woman. In their first conversation, Charlotte tells Marcus about the stipend she receives from the government for taking care of him in the interests of keeping things “above board.” This conversation haunts Marcus for the rest of the book. Coupled with his unresolved guilt over hurting his friend and his grief for his mother, the “above board” comment leads Marcus to constantly worry that he is an imposition. He desperately makes himself useful to every adult he encounters in an effort to not be cast off. It’s heartbreaking to watch the adults around him unwittingly take advantage of a boy who needs guidance and comfort.
The title of the book comes from a decaying beach house with a reputation for being haunted at the north end of the island. In 1954, a family died during a hurricane that ripped up the island. These seem to be the only facts known in the case and Marcus becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to this partially forgotten family. Even though the book takes its name from the cottage, the mystery about this lost family always takes second place to Marcus’ journey.
Marcus fills his days with trying to find out what happened to the family, monitor a clutch of loggerhead turtle eggs near the house he shares with Charlotte, and with doing as many chores and errands as possible. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at once, but then Charlotte falls and seriously injures herself. Her injury makes her drinking worse. Before long, Marcus finds himself far out to sea in responsibility and emotional suffering. This sounds awful—and it is—but the joy Marcus takes in the island and the turtles keeps Grief Cottage from being a totally miserable experience.
I liked Grief Cottage a lot more than I thought I would from the first couple of chapters. I tend to avoid books with underage protagonists (apart from the Flavia de Luce series, because it’s hilarious), because I think it’s impossible to write one with an authentic voice. Godwin dodges this by having an adult Marcus narrate the book in retrospect. Consequently, Marcus is able to be a lot more eloquent about his thought process and emotions than would be credible for an eleven year old. Marcus’ reflection, the revelations of family secrets, and the subplot about the lost family combined to make a very compelling read.