In “Flora,’’ her 14th novel, Gail Godwin returns to the nuances of Southern Catholic girlhood in the mid-1900s. Encompassing eight summer weeks during which 10-year-old Helen Anstruther precipitously grows up, the novel, narrated by the adult Helen, now a successful novelist, is both a traditional examination of conscience and an idiosyncratic künstlerroman.
Helen’s father, Harry, invites second cousin Flora to North Carolina to look after his daughter while he works on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Precocious Helen dreads her 22-year-old cousin’s arrival. “Embarrassingly ready to spill her shortcomings, she was the first older person I felt superior to. This had its gratifying moments but also its worrisome side . . . . She was an instant crier. My grandmother Nonie, that mistress of layered language, had often remarked that Flora possessed ‘the gift of tears.’ As far as I could tell, layers had been left out of Flora.”