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The Bird Artist: A Novel Hardcover – July 1, 1994

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 289 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (July 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374113300
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374113308
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,335,205 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Though judging a book by its cover is ill-advised, assessing The Bird Artist by its first paragraph is a safe bet. Howard Norman's second novel lives up to all expectations promised by the kind of beginning that makes a reader beg for more and then panic that the rest will not be as good: "My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me." "Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself."

There are echoes of Vladimir Nabokov's infamous narrator, Humbert Humbert, in Fabian's confessional tone, witty humor, and emotional detachment from the series of bizarre events he describes. Set at the turn of the century in a remote cod-fishing community, The Bird Artist is a love story of sorts, filled with curious characters and a chowder restaurant. The men wear "knitted underwear all year round lined with fleece calico" and periodically escape the island to pursue their livelihoods on the sea. But the women are land bound. Helen Twombly suspects fellow villagers of stealing her milk bottles. Alaric Vas suffers from arthritis that no liniment relieves and plots her son's arranged marriage with a fourth cousin in Richibucto, New Brunswick. Meanwhile, Fabian's childhood love, Margaret Handle, propels herself and the plot forward with unwieldy energy. How did things for a mild-mannered man who just likes "to wake up early, wash my face, and get out and draw birds" go so wrong?

Norman, a folklorist and naturalist, presents us with the possible explanations in the form of fine details from an island life he researched while living in a remote Inuit whale-hunting community. He carefully examines the inner isolation of his characters. The severe landscape and the weather serve as the perfect metaphor. If you're looking for linguistic pyrotechnics, Norman's economy won't suit you. In The Bird Artist--a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award--there is as much to admire on the page as what's not. --Cristina Del Sesto --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Northern landscapes are definitely writer Norman's territory; in Northern Lights and now in this enchanting second novel, he simultaneously evokes the region's harsh weather and terrain and invests it with magical possibilities. There is a wonderful inverse relationship between a setting where life is reduced to essentials and people are unsophisticated and stoic, and the exotic aura his fiction radiates. It's as though Norman has accepted a challenge to wring beauty out of stone and eloquence out of simplicity. This tale of passion, murder and fate is set in 1911 in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, a bleak and isolated community whose citizens are capable of grim retribution and astonishing acts of compassion. In a spare but elegant narrative, Fabian Bass tells us on the novel's first page that he is a bird artist, and that he murdered the lighthouse keeper Botho August. Two irresistible sexual attractions have propelled the 20-year-old Fabian to his desperate act: his love for spirited, eccentric Margaret Handle, which his parents have sought to thwart because she is an alcoholic and older than he; and his mother's flagrant, unrepentant adultery with August as soon as her husband sets off on a long bird-hunting expedition, the proceeds of which are planned to finance Fabian's arranged marriage with a distant cousin he has never met. The narrative sings with tension as events move toward the murder, yet it sparkles with antic humor. Set pieces abound: the comically awkward scene in which the betrothed couple meet for the first time, wed and acrimoniously part; the mad hilarity of the murder hearing as a quixotic, compassionate constable and a fatuous preacher engage in antiphonal debate, with the village elders comprising a Greek chorus. Other scenes have a painterly glow: villagers in small boats keep a nightlong vigil on the fog-swathed ocean, waiting to find the body of a suicidal woman. The intriguing story lurches to an unforeseen climax; its haunting aftermath sets Fabian physically free and emotionally transforms him. At the end, he is both bereft of family and blessed with love, but he has been stunned by the ironies of life and the capriciousness of fate. If he has learned anything, it's to follow his "heart's logic," which drew him to drawing birds; this is, he realizes "a small gift to help me clarify the world." And in weaving his compelling tale, Norman convinces you that human nature is a perennially absorbing puzzle, and that the hands of an accomplished writer can worry the solutions in fresh, surprising and altogether memorable ways. Fabian describes the work of his teacher as "graceful and transcendent." So is this novel. Movie rights to Arne Glimscher Productions; major ad/promo; author tour.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

HOWARD NORMAN is a three-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a winner of the Lannan Award for fiction. His 1987 novel, The Northern Lights, was nominated for a National Book Award, as was his 1994 novel The Bird Artist. He is also author of the novels The Museum Guard, The Haunting of L, and Devotion. His books have been translated into twelve languages. Norman teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland. He lives in Washington, D.C., and Vermont with his wife and daughter.

Customer Reviews

Howard Norman is a fabulous under appreciated author.
ruth e. cohen
I mostly loved the complexity of the characters and their stories but the plot definitely pulled me along as well.
Reader in Virginia
Norman's prose is spare and elegant, as if shaped by the landscape he evokes so beautifully.
Lynn Harnett

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
Howard Norman's second novel, "The Bird Artist", is a turn-of-century tale of murder, betrayal and redemption set in a fishing town in freezing Newfoundland. It opens with a highly intriguing first paragraph which sadly only partially delivers what it promises to do. The display of Norman's naturalist tendencies and fascination with birds is subtle and well judged in as far as they helped define the character of Fabian Vas. Having said that, I feel he got a little carried away with scene setting which caused the story to drag on a bit in the first half. The novel only started to take off with the murder, but from there, the writing is so uniformly excellent you readily overlook the deficiencies that went before. Norman writes with a restraint and economy that is unusual in thrillers. The dialogue of his characters is similarly spare and understated but with a bitterness and unpleasantness which underlie their true feelings. I found this to be especially true of Margaret and Alaric. By the end of the novel, you wonder whether Fabian's weakness is any less forgiveable than the whiskey swigging Margaret's upfront ruthlessness. Probably not. The novel has all the human interest elements to make a great story and it succeeds for much of the time. The highlight for me was Fabian's redemption via the painting of the church mural depicting coastal life and the dramatic events which altered the course of their lives. "The Bird Artist" is a very accomplished piece of work. It is deserving of its National Book Award prize nomination and a highly recommended read.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John Anderson on July 4, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you want a book to take with you to the beach that you won't be embarassed to have been caught reading, look no further. I may be biased as I read it under what may be perfect circumstances -on a foggy island on the coast of Maine, with the foghorn and the marine radio for background, but even for the shore-bound among you believe me that this is what The Shipping News never could deliver. Beautifully written with nary a wasted word this book captures both the period and The Rock in a way that I have yet to find in any other author. While the narrator may infuriate you at times you will also find yourself rooting for him throughout, and although we "know what will happen" from the first paragraph on the WHY & the HOW keeps you going to the end.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By hugh riminton on March 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
Another novel set in the frigid fringes of continental America (standby for the backlash trend in bestsellers from the deep south!) The climate is an apt metaphor for the cool emotional tone of the protagonist, Fabian Vas.
The plot unfolds like an idiot plodding. As much colour is invested in the description of place as it is in the lurid circumstances of the story - not a great deal.
And yet I reckon it works. The lonely boy who has a feel for the fine detail of feathers on a wing, but cannot see love when it stands before his eyes, was convincing to me. The story is his confession. There's no sentimentality. The language is restrained. It fits the buttoned down nature of Witless Bay where formal courtesies struggle to cope with the untidy passions that lie at the heart of the tale.
Relentless, remorseless, restrained...the book makes no appeal to our emotions, but stirs them just the same. Highly recommended for a weekend when the fire is glowing and the weather closing in.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jacquelyn Gill on August 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
I have to confess that part-way through the first chapter of this book I didn't think I would finish. I was uncertain of the author's often stark and understated prose, which is quite unlike anything I have read recently. I found myself gradually easing into the book, however, and finished it (much to my surprise) later that same evening in the bathtub. I had read "The Shipping News" and was disappointed, finding it to be a forced, highly-stylized portrayal of Newfoundland life, and picked up The Bird Artist in the hopes of getting my North Atlantic fix after spending a summer on a light-house island in the Gulf of Maine. I was not disappointed.

The book opens with the admission that the narrator, Fabian Vas, is both a bird artist of no great renown and the murderer of the lighthouse-keeper, Botho August. Rather than a trite literary gimmick, these assertions are in fact the lenses through which the main character sees himself, and also form the catalysts which comprise his fall from grace and akward redemption. He is, simultaneously, absolutely ordinary and uniquely intriguing as an individual, and the author (Norman) captures this with natural grace and ease in Fabians narration. The supporting characters of the novel read like familiar archetypes somehow miscast from their typical roles, from the Annie Oakley-esque lover Margaret to Fabian's royal and tragic mother, Alaric. They are made all the more interesting in the ways in which they say and do things that are both unexpected and perfectly natural. In this way Norman artfully captures the ways in which truth can be stranger than fiction, making for a much more fanciful and yet believable fiction than The Shipping News.
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