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The Bird Artist: A Novel Paperback – March 15, 1995

4.0 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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

From Publishers Weekly

Set in Newfoundland, Norman's novel about a young man who confesses to the murder of the village lighthouse keeper, and whose gift for drawing birds becomes both his physical and his emotional release, was a 1994 National Book Award finalist.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (March 15, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312130279
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312130275
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #332,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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