Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin

I found Father Melancholy’s Daughter a compelling but challenging read, partly because of the protagonist’s ability to get under your skin.

Father Melancholy is Margaret’s father, the Rector of St Cuthbert’s in a small town in Virginia. The novel follows Margaret’s attempts to formulate herself through an understanding of her parents that circles most intently around the period of her mother’s departure. Her father suffers from periods of depression that he calls going behind the black curtain – hence the nickname Father Melancholy – and her mother, much younger than her father, vivacious, energetic, suffers under his failure to be the perfect religious hero she had imagined.

After the death of her mother, Margaret becomes the helpmeet for her father, nourishing him through his periods of depression. Margaret allows her own needs to subjugate to her father’s and to others as well. Her need to fulfil obligations and to behave appropriately is behaviour that being a Rector’s daughter has encouraged, but it is also something that is innate within her. She lives through other people as much as she lives for herself and the book is really about her journey into selfhood, into a recognition that she needs to find her own story, her own path through life that embraces her proclivities. As a reader, I sometimes wanted to encourage her to find this path faster, to embrace some carefree youth and there are moments when it feels as if she is going to make similar mistakes to her parents. This makes the book uncomfortable to read, but for all the right reasons: Margaret feels very real.

It would be difficult not to be drawn into Margaret’s analytical and imaginative mind. There is a sense of scholarship and emotion that is unusual and enticing. In a strange way it’s like reading a female, and thankfully less arrogant, Remembrances of Time Past. Over the course of the book we watch a young woman emerge out of girlhood. Despite the potentially trite nature of such a narrative, this feels like a hard won achievement shared with the reader, especially as Gail Godwin’s descriptions of grief are so overwhelming (I found myself crying through most of the last one hundred pages, you’ll see why if you read the novel).

There is also an obsession with old monastic life, mystics and medieval texts that fits beautifully with Margaret’s life as a Rector’s daughter, but also as a contemplative being. The way in which literature and religion attempt to make sense of what it means to have an inner life combine in the narrative of Margaret’s life and almost turn writing into a religious act of faith. To search for some kind of truth about the self and about the world is a precious pursuit. Even her mother’s old artist friend, who seems to steal her mother away, understands art in very similar way.

To truly do credit to Father Melancholy’s Daughter would require more study and more pages than I care to cover here. Perhaps it is best to say that this is one of those rare novels that really forces you to undergo the protagonist’s experiences. Whilst that may not always be easy or even wished for, it makes Father Melancholy’s Daughter an extremely powerful novel that turns time upon itself in a way that reminds me of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, only Father Melancholy’s Daughter does it more quietly and in a less dramatically self-conscious way. There is an aesthetic to Father Melancholy’s Daughter, an otherworldly quality that lends Margaret’s story the romantic glow of remembered youth. I would thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’m reading The Machine by James Smythe, followed the week after by The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, and then This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes. Please do suggest books for future weeks.

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