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Devotion Hardcover – February 8, 2007
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In the same calm, revelatory manner in which he wrote The Bird Artist, Howard Norman begins Devotion by telling of an event and then moving forward and backward from it. On August 19, 1985, the day that David Kozol and Margaret Field return to London from their honeymoon, David and his father-in-law, William Field, are involved in a fracas that leaves Field in the hospital. Not until almost the end of the book do we find out the cause.
David's life began heading toward that moment when he first laid eyes on Margaret, traveling as a publicist with an orchestral ensemble, and fell instantly in love with her. They are married in a few months. David wants to write a book about his mentor, Josef Sudek, a Czech genius, and Margaret enjoys traveling with the orchestra, checking in daily with her father, who tends an estate in Nova Scotia owned by a Jewish couple, Stefania and Isador Tecosky, and the wounded swans who live there. After William is hurt, David takes over his estate duties but Margaret refuses to see him.
Norman brings these people and their disparate realities together by showing the real devotion that binds them to each other and to the swans. William and Margaret enjoy a strong filial bond, the Tecoskys are devoted to William and Margaret, and the swans provide the perfect metaphor for all the relationships: they have had their wings clipped so they cannot fly--and they mate for life. Norman is a born naturalist with an immense love for Nova Scotia, birds, and landscape combined with a towering literary capability to bring them all together in a quirky, interesting story. Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Norman's intriguing, if at times baffling, sixth novel opens with a fight between Canadians David Kozol and his father-in-law, William Field, outside a hotel in London "on the morning of August 19, 1985." That date is important—it's just days after Kozol's marriage to William's daughter, Maggie—and an ensuing accident seriously injures William, the caretaker of a Nova Scotia estate on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy. The result is a particularly strange domestic situation: Kozol assumes William's duties on the estate; Maggie refuses to see her husband; William vows revenge on his son-in-law. Uncovering why the men were fighting and what separates the young couple drives the plot. Norman (The Bird Artist) uses the avian world as a counterpoint to the human one. William is devoted to the swans on the estate; Maggie wants in her own life the kind of devotion the swans embody. This quirky story deals with a powerful theme: how love endures despite our best efforts to sabotage it. Author tour. (Feb.)
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Devotion appears written with little distance from the main character. It appears written in drunken haste, ill-timed, in often stiltifed and forced prose. Norman wanely develops his Dosteyevskian 'idiot', places him in the anguishing half-light of passive resistance, makes him a voyeur to all but the swam, only with whom he can frolic in drunken embrace. But who cares. Not Norman nor I.
Firstly, the timing is off. Norman has lost, in the irony of the title, any 'devotion' he has had for the painstaking craftsmanship of his earlier works. The author of 'Northern Lights' and, of course his famous trilogy of exceptional prose, seems to have been forced to try to re-create his masterpieces for expedience's sake and for, I suspect, a whole kettle of yankee dollars. The book just does not work.
Two dimensional characters passionlessly embrace even before they are introduced. Who are these people seen only in half-light. Norman thinks he is still in control of his craft but he now writes with a flat, false pen. There is no drama, no pacing that can make important sequences come alive. Maggie's naked dance by the window is dull because Maggie is dull as is the voyeur David who is dull. Finally they touch, appear re-united in the car. This act, in a drama of people who cannot cause an action, should mean something to us.But Maggie, or is it David, or perhaps, Howard Norman who makes us feel one or both or all of them are holding a dead mackerel in their flaccid fingers?
There is greater passion about the swans. Its obvious Norman has given up on human contact. The passing mention of a woman who believes her swan to be a dead husband is more in keeping with this author's present passion. The only real scene in this story that masquerades as substance(and I suspect, like his character,was written with alcohol very close by) occurs when David wrestles with the swan and falls down drunk amidst swan dew. It is as close to drunken passion that the present-day Norman can affect.
Sadly, Norman obviously no longer cares. He is Roger Clemens trying to scratch out one more season well after his skills are gone His gifts are wilted.
Devotion, above all else, is a very dull read. Not until page 70 of this short work do we begin to see any movement. The plot,an accident...a misunderstanding in a hotel room, a punch in the mouth? Wow,oh my, what heart-stopping drama!. Like David, his protagonist, Norman now is now disappeared behind the camera lense. His prose, like his protagonist's actions; indeed, like all his characters seems irksome and stilted--forced and banal.
I need more, Howard Norman, if I am to pay twenty dollars to read you again. Where's your.....honesty, your.....devotion?
The fast-forward romance between the newlyweds is as passionate as their current distance is poignant, the attraction immediate and mutual from the start, two Canadians meeting by chance in London. Later, back in Nova Scotia after the accident, David's supposed misdeed hanging over the relationship like a dark shadow, the new husband takes over William's estate management duties. The estate is owned by an elderly couple and serves as a refuge for swans, the mute birds central to the story and indicative of the ambiguity of form and intent. For though they are majestic, the swans are ill-tempered and difficult, much like humans. These particular humans fumble through a tripartite relationship, where father serves as buffer for daughter, the lack of communication among the parties stunning. Clearly David and Maggie are victims of their impulsiveness; it is that same impetuousness that causes them to pull apart in adversity rather than come together in solution.
In eloquent prose, the author casts his characters in the picturesque Nova Scotia, the honking swans, the distance between the lovers accented by the haunting rural landscape. Love being more powerful than enforced isolation, David and Maggie eventually navigate the rocky ground of their fledgling marriage, toward a resolution of differences and a strong dose of forgiveness. Luan Gaines/2007.