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.