The Widow's Daughter
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The late 1960s in San Diego, California, and artist Peter Sokol sits before a blank canvas. Art has always been a means for him to channel the painful memories of his past, but now his past has risen up to meet him. A fellow Marine from his World War II days has published a novel about their time stationed in New Zealand and Peter is at its very center. With a gentle push from his lover Missy, Peter decides to attend a reading of the book in Los Angeles, realizing that he must finally face the disturbing events that have held him prisoner for more than twenty years. So begins Nicholas Edlin’s debut novel, The Widow’s Daughter.
On the drive to Los Angeles, Peter picks up Eddie, a young man who, by coincidence, has read the novel. As Eddie begins to recount its plot, Peter loses himself in recollection of the actual events. These memories of 1940s New Zealand are the heart of Edlin’s novel, tracing Peter’s brief love affair with the beautiful Emily Walters and its tragic consequences.
Darkly eccentric, the Walters family is not what it first appears, but lost in the joy of new love, Peter is unwittingly drawn into its web of secretssecrets that not only take the lives of others but threaten his own. Amid whispers of Nazi sympathies, treason, and murder, Peter unravels the mystery of Emily’s family as the story reaches its terrible and heartbreaking climax on a rainy New Zealand night.
Edlin has taken a piece of history unknown to most readers, and from it created a rich, atmospheric love story. From the brash lawlessness of wartime life in Auckland to the quiet warmth of domestic life in Southern California, Edlin skillfully creates two vastly different yet equally compelling worlds, and the joy and sadness for the reader lies in watching Peter navigate between the two. The intimate first person narration is unsentimental yet full of feeling as the younger Peter slowly realizes the depth of his heartbreakand as the older Peter confronts that same pain, now decades older. A stunning portrait of love, betrayal, and forgiveness, told in precise, finely cut, evocative prose, The Widow’s Daughter is a tremendous debut and marks Nicholas Edlin as an author to watch.
Nicholas Edlin was born and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, and holds a BA in English and political science from Canterbury University. He also holds a LLB from Victoria University of Wellington and has worked as a solicitor and legal adviser. He currently lives in Auckland with his wife.
Q. As a New Zealand native, why did you decide to write a story from the point of view of a U.S. Marine? How did you approach writing in an American voice
The voice of Peter Sokol preceded the idea of the story. I had tried placing Peter, or a character like Peter, in a variety of settings and situations without much luck. At that stage, his nationality didn’t seem terribly important to me. He was just a character with certain ideas and values I found interesting. The setting and the plot of the novel came later and were built around a character I felt I knew very well. Once I had decided upon wartime New Zealand as the setting, it seemed only natural that Peter should be American. At that time, the majority of the young male population in New Zealand was abroad in North Africa and Europe fighting the war, so the choices of New Zealand characters would have been very limited. As for negotiating the American voice, it ended up being far easier than I thought it would be. I feel as though I’ve been surrounded by American voices my whole life, voices that speak through popular culture, through novels, films, television, and music. I’ve always been an avid consumer of American cultural products, so the sound and the patterns of American speech seem natural and familiar to me. In that sense, it wasn’t overly difficult to make Peter sound American.
Q. You’ve presented two distinct and very realistic time periods in this novel; 1940s New Zealand, being the more prominent part of the novel, is especially detailed. How much research did you do for this book? When writing a historical novel, how do you balance fact with invention?
With historical fiction, there is always a tension between creating something authentic to its time and creating something that, while set in the past, nevertheless feels new and exciting. I have read many historical novels and have watched many historical films where it seems that the primary objective is just to breathe life back into a certain period of time. To my mind, these pieces often feel wooden and dull, as if the author (or the director) has become beholden to the research. My approach was to focus on character development and story, and to not unduly constrain the story by slavish faithfulness to accurate period detail. If the voice and the narrative are strong enough, it seems to me that the settings become more real as a consequence.
This was my idea from the outset. I did enough research to make the settings believable, but no more. Also, I think it helped that at the time of writing I was living in the area in which the Auckland scenes are set. The neighborhood, Ponsonby, has retained a lot of its original character, so it wasn’t particularly difficult to imagine it sixty years prior. I used to walk through Victoria Park on my way to work in the mornings and would try to imagine the tents and the hospital and the dozens of men and women, Peter among them, camped together on that boggy stretch of land.
Q. While you’ve made clear that the novel is a work of fiction rather than history, was the actual U.S. presence in New Zealand during World War II as unpleasant and resented as you’ve depicted it in the book?
I think there were two periods. The first is the clichéd narrative of the gallant American soldiers who had come to protect the helpless, vulnerable New Zealanders. The second period is the one that develops later, after the romance of the situation had started to fade. Obviously, the book has it roots in this second phase. While I wouldn’t claim it to be representative of the entire experience the country had with the U.S. forces, I hope that it is true to at least a fairly common perspective. The fact remains that the soldiers seduced the local maidens, drank heavily, caroused, and engaged in a number of famous brawls with local men in Wellington and in Auckland. The tension that this must have created was what interested me.
Q. One of the refrains in the book is the naivety of the Americans and of the damaging effects of their obliviousness. Would you say this is still a common perception of Americans or has the stereotype shifted over time?
The naivety and the obliviousness you mention come, in the book, from young soldiers on their first trip away from home. I wouldn’t take the refrain of the book as a general statement about Americans. Regardless of nationality, I think that young soldiers who are stationed abroad tend to have colorful reputations. In saying that, I did intend to play up the differences between the Americans and the locals. New Zealanders at that time were a fairly quiet, laconic bunch. I enjoyed setting them next to characters who had no issues at all in expressing themselves, and seeing what the results would be.
Q. Peter speaks of the “intensely bright, crusheddiamond haloes” of New Zealand light (p.12). Do you see the countryside of New Zealandits topography, its weather, its physical characteristicsas coloring the plot of the novel?
Perhaps not the plot, but certainly the development of Peter’s character. While he earns his living as a surgeon, Peter’s true self is a painter, and his response to the natural aesthetics of New Zealand was an important tool in the fleshing out of this identity.
Q. In your acknowledgments, you refer to the military and medical texts you consulted when writing the novel. Did you find the surgical scenes difficult to write? What about the battle scenes?
As I’ve said in the acknowledgments, I relied on the information gleaned from the medical texts for the nuts and bolts of certain surgical procedures. However, the more difficult thing to write was Peter’s state of mind while he performed the procedures, and also the atmosphere of a busy operating theater. It’s a firstperson narrative, so everything had to be filtered through Peter’s particular worldview. He is, for the most part, a fairly detached person, so his approach to surgery had to be rendered accordingly. I strived for something similar with the battle scenes. Obviously, the scenes had to project a certain sense of horror, but at the same time, it was important that Peter could see them, and experience them, with a degree of distance. This layer of distance is an integral feature of Peter’s character and also helps to explain many of the choices he makes.
Q. Peter’s descriptions of painting aren’t simply technically detailed but also deeply emotional. Is art an important part of your own life?
Yes it is. Paintings in particular can be hugely emotional objects for me, and I find that engagement with them can be deeply fulfilling. The period in which Peter was painting was an incredibly significant period for American art. People like Gorky, Pollock, and Rothko created works that fairly drip with authentic emotion. It was important for me that Peter was in tune with these developments.
Q. You have a law degree and have worked as a solicitor and legal adviser. Are you a fulltime writer now or do you still divide your time between the two professions? Do you see any influence between one career and the other?
I still work as a lawyer. Every writer is different, but I feel that at this stage of my life it is important for me, as a person and as a writer, to continue to have everyday experiences in the “real world.” I would dearly like to write fulltime at some point, but before I can commit to that, I need to learn more about life. I don’t think I can do that by just writing fiction. I am convinced that working in the law has influenced my writing, but I’m not exactly sure how.
Q. What was your writing process as you worked on this novel? Did your characters surprise you at all as you progressed through the story?
It was largely written in small chunks of stolen time in the evenings and weekends, so the process was fairly unstructured. I had a loose idea of where I wanted the narrative to go, but a specific ending did not appear on the horizon until I was actually in the process of writing it. The characters that developed during the process certainly did surprise me, as I had no real idea of where they, and the story, were heading from one chapter to the next.
Q. What are you currently working on?
I have recently had another novel published in New Zealand. It is set in South Korea and involves two distinct time frames: the immediate postwar period and the months leading up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988. It is told in the first person from a woman’s perspective, which I found both challenging and rewarding to write. I am also currently planning a shorter piece, a novella perhaps, about a small rural community in the 1950s.
- Before reading this novel, were you aware of the American presence in New Zealand during World War II? What did you know about New Zealand in general? And how has Edlin’s writing changed your view of the country?
- Sturgis describes the Marines in Auckland as “big kids with free time and guns, and no responsibility” (p. 3) What effect does this kind of foreign military presence have on the locals? Consider the experiences of the characters in the novel as well as examples from current events.
- How does Peter discover the truth about Dr. Walters?
- Mrs. Walters says to Peter, “We were women in a man’s house, Captain. . . . We were just trying to survive” (p. 346). Does that justify her actions? When she says, “The only thing I believe in now is bread,” what does she mean?
- Is Peter romantic or foolish in his choices concerning Emily? Why? Did she love him?
- The Vietnam War and World War II mark the two halves of the book’s narrative. Have you or anyone in your family fought in or lived through a war? If so, how has this impacted your family? How does Peter describe the feeling of returning to regular life after the war?
- Discuss Peter’s relationship with Eddie and how it changes both men. Are there any parallels to be drawn between this relationship and those Peter had during the war?
- In what ways has the older Peter changed by the end of the book? How does his love for Missy compare with his love for Emily? What do you imagine happens to him after the novel’s closing?
- What is the significance of the title? If you had to imagine another title for the novel, what would it be?