The Bird Artist: A Novel

by Howard Norman

Paperback, 1995

Call number





Picador (1995), 304 pages


The setting is the bleak coastline of Newfoundland and the protagonist is Fabian Bass, an artistic type who paints birds when he is not building boats. Forced by his parents to abandon the woman he loves in order to marry a cousin, he revenges himself by murdering his mother's lover. By the author of Northern Lights.

User reviews

LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I read this book for my Newfoundland entry in John Mutford's Canadian reading challenge since my personal challenge was to read a mystery set in each province and territory in Canada. I suppose that to call this book a mystery is sort of a stretch since it is not your classic whodunit type of mystery. Right from the first you know that Fabian Vas has murdered Botho August. The mystery is why and what happens to Fabian after the murder.

First of all I have to say I loved the names of the characters in this book: Fabian Vas, Botho August, Boas LaCotte, Romeo Gillette, Orkney Vas and on and on. And the personalities of the characters are as quirky as their names would suggest. Fabian spends his days drawing birds and his nights (well Tuesdays and Thursdays anyway) making love to Margaret Handle; Margaret has parlayed a facility for mathematics into a bookkeeping business but really only wants to drink whiskey, ride her bicycle and make love; Fabian's mother, Alaric, commences an affair with Botho August when her husband is off on Anticosti Island for the summer; Botho August keeps to himself in his lighthouse playing gramophone records and making shadow puppets in the lantern light; Helen Twombly stores huge quantities of milk and butter in her cold storage shack and thinks that everyone is out to steal it.

I thought the middle of the book dragged but the beginning set the stage well and once the trial started I was quite caught up in it. Newfoundland has always seemed almost foreign to me and after reading this book I think I understand why. Before Newfoundland joined Canada it wasn't really British (or at least the people didn't perceive themselves as British) but it certainly wasn't part of Canada. This is reinforced throughout the book by references to Canada as a place apart. I think that long period of separateness affected the people of Newfoundland and they have never quite lost that.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a glimpse of life in a Newfoundland outport just after the turn of the century but don't go thinking, as I did, that it will be a mystery novel.
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LibraryThing member mstrust
Fabian Vas discovered at a young age his talent for drawing the birds of his small Newfoundland village. He cultivated his talent and began making a little money from his artwork while still a teenager. He also began secretly seeing Margaret, the older, alcoholic daughter of the local mail boat captain, a girl his mother dislikes.
When Fabian is twenty, his father leaves for a hunting trip, one that is expected to last many months, where he will earn money from killing birds. Fabian's mother immediately begins an affair with the lighthouse keeper, Botho August. The two conduct their affair without discretion, so that the entire village is aware, which humiliates Fabian. It's Margaret, always drunk and bold, who puts the idea in Fabian's mind for avenging his father.

I had to get a copy of this after seeing some comments in the group read here a few months back. It was one of David Bowie's favorites!
This story of Fabian delivers to the reader a young man who would likely have led a quiet life if not for his mother's actions, which in turn leads him to follow Margaret's advice. Or perhaps Fabian is so easily manipulated that he was destined to get into trouble. Either way, this is really well-written. 4.5 stars
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LibraryThing member gbelik
I don't remember who recommended Howard Norman to me, but thank you. This book is set in Newfoundland, which already endears it to me. Right off the bat, our protagonist Fabian, a bird artist, reveals that he has killed the lighthouse keeper. Now we will come to understand Fabian and see what led such a gentle, contemplative soul to this act. Wonderful descriptions of the countryside and its inhabitants are part of the package.… (more)
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Set in Newfoundland in the second decade of the 20th century (when Newfoundland was a semi-autonomous British territory, and NOT Canadian, as its inhabitants frequently make clear), it's the story of Fabian Vas, a young man with a modest talent for sketching and painting waterfowl. Through Fabian's narration, we meet many rare birds including a mail boat operator and his hard-drinking daughter; an old woman who hoards milk; a stiff-necked preacher; Fabian's own tormented parents; and the lighthousekeeper, Botho August. We know from the first page that Fabian will murder Botho. We keep reading to discover why. It's a simple story of complex emotions, told in a slightly drifting style that always seems to come back to the point just when you think you've lost the thread. It has sex, murder, adultery, deception, and betrayal, but you won't find an obvious "moral" in it anywhere. There is also plenty of symbolism, which I may revisit at leisure one of these days. I assume it did its job on me subconsciously; I was too engrossed in reading to parse it. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member -Cee-
Setting: Coastal Newfoundland, Canada 1911
Norman creates a very strong sense of place and time in a story simply written. But the emotions and actions of the characters are not simple. Tension builds in the lives of the nearly isolated villagers until there is a murder. We know who did it. It doesn't seem to matter all that much though. There is little sympathy for the victim and little condemnation of the murderer. And yet, the earth has shifted for the entire village. Strange ending after all that happened.… (more)
LibraryThing member jimnicol
One of my favorite books all time. Wonderfully original and compelling story of early 20th century Newfoundland. The book The Shipping News wishes it had been.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Such a different, yet compelling story, set before World War I in an isolated part of Canada, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Fabian, grows up here, a place where everyone knows everyone else, where gossip is spread almost instantaneously, where it takes over a month a get a reply to a letter.

The novel starts with Fabian admitting to having killed someone, but this is so much more than a murder mystery. It is also a coming of age story, a story where the setting and Fabian's love for birds and the drawing of them, is a huge part of Fabian's life.

I loved the clean and clear prose, the characters names are so quirky, the story drew me in, quietly and slowly. I became immersed in this island and the lives of it's inhabitants. I absolutely adored the character of Margaret, she does and sees things in her own way which is hard to do on a small island. Also loved all the descriptions of the birds and I did look up several of these birds to see what they looked like. It was just an added bonus to this quiet but satisfying read.
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LibraryThing member HarryMacDonald
One wants to be gracious in these columns, but honesty must trump grace. Besides that, there are far more readers than writers, so my sense of The Greater Good compels me to say quite simply that this novel is hands-down the most pretentious and worthless English-langauge novel I have ever encountered, in nearly six decades of reading serious fiction. Howard Norman has appointed himself in some sense the Official Explainer of the Canadian Maritimes, to which I can only say that even in that comparatively narrow niche, his inadequacies are an afront to the subject-matter, the reader, and ultimately himself. The only trace of vitality in this silly fable is the characterization of the alcoholic nymphomaniac, though in its psychology and its prose-style, even that groans with an adolescence which ill-suits a writer in his middle age. One recalls Dr Johnson's stricture "it has not wit enough to keep it from putrifcation." Were he alive to read this little opus, he would, as the saying goes, be glad he wad dead. I paid a buck for my copy, and even at that price I feel cheated.… (more)
LibraryThing member nancenwv
I looked forward to reading this book because it had gotten such good reviews, was set in Newfoundland (I loved The Shipping News) and had an orinthology connection. However, I found it oddly emotionally disconnected and therefore unsatisfying. It may be that he was intentionally conveying the disconnect between the characters. It does have an oddball sense of humor which I did enjoy but I would not recommend it as a great book.… (more)
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
This is the story of Fabian Vas, a teenage boy in a very small town in Newfoundland, Canada, over 100 years ago. Although he has been sleeping regularly with Margaret, a girl four years older than he, his mother has secretly been planning for her son to wed his own fourth cousin whom her son has never met. The boy sees that his mother has taken to shacking up with the lighthouse keeper, Bothos August, while his dad was away for two months on work trip. This leads the boy to murder the lighthouse keeper (which we know as the book opens. No spoilers here).

The pace of this book is halting, and the story hugely interesting. There is an undercurrent of subtle, dry humor very much covered over by the harsh realities of life. Fabian is a bird artist. His lovely pictures of birds are purchased by magazines, while in his own life, family and friends shoot and eat birds (and are not reticent to let Fabian know this).

Names of so many people abound in this story. They are also odd. Fabian's dad is Orkney Vas; his mom is Alaric Banville. The lighthouse keeper is Botho August. We hear lots of names in this book but are not intended to remember most of them. The book also talks about the Beothuk, who were an indigenous people to Newfoundland. Perhaps the names in this book are of Beothuk origin (as are the songs that some of the characters sing or hum).

This is a captivating story. It is also a look at one of the more unusual mother-son relationships that I've encountered in a novel. I'd say to give this book a read! It is quite different from the run-of-the mill stories of small town life that I've read in th past. It's really a great book!
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LibraryThing member patrickgarson
Howard Norman is a singular voice in modern literature and The Bird Artist is yet another success in his rock-solid oeuvre.

Fabian is a young man in isolated Newfoundland in the twenties. His murder of the local lighthouse keeper is mentioned in the first page, but it takes a novel to unravel not only why he did it, but what it means for him.

Norman's writing is, I suspect, something that either works for you - or it doesn't. I've read four of his books now, and in my opinion they are uniformly excellent, but they are also similar in many ways.

A Canadian chill seems to permeate his prose. The protagonists are always alienated, out of place, nonplussed by the lives of others - and perhaps even their own lives. The writing is simple, not simplistic, and very clean.

The Bird Artist is no exception to this. Despite the lurid plot, replete with murders and affairs, there's something very, not domestic exactly, but very human and pedestrian in the commonplace sense. The dramas in these books are always internal, and Norman has an intertwined gift for characterisation and dialogue.

He never stoops to telling us how his characters feel. He lets their actions and words speak for them; sometimes these feelings are clear as vodka, other times they are clouded and obscure. It gives his characters a human, layered aspect that is wholly believable, and with that believability comes empathy - you care for these people, quickly and effectively. Even more impressive, this holds true for the entire cast in The Bird Artist; every character is as interesting as Fabian, and there's a sense - in these brief glances against them and their personal histories - that they all hold novels within, equally compelling, from which we only see a few paragraphs in this particular book.

His prose is equally thoughtful. It's classic, lean without being spartan, descriptive - where necessary - without being gratuitous or lush. He has a flair for calling attention to the unappreciated senses: smell, taste, touch, at particular junctures in the novel, and in doing so can anchor you to a scene with an hypnotic immediacy.

Used to propel a narrative that actually contains a wealth of plot and character development in a compact number of pages, it's easy to recommend this book.

Indeed, I'm puzzled that Norman isn't a bigger deal, really. His books lack ostentation I suppose. He's too invested in his characters to suborn them as mere illustrations for a theme or idea. Mark my words though, that's an investment that will yield rich dividends in years to come, long after most prize winners are on history's remainders table.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Overall I liked this, but not as much as What is Left the Daughter which was my first Norman book. One reason is Margaret’s character was unrealistic to me. She thinks about and has sex pretty much all the time. I’m not saying women don’t like sex, but pre-birth control this seems too risky. Also, Fabian seems to see more deeply into other people than men usually do. On one hand he’s very emotional and can’t forgive his mother’s affair, then at other times he acts coldly and dispassionately; like how matter of fact he is while telling about the falling out with his mother. And the live-and-let-live attitude just went too far when it came to the murder. For a while there I didn’t know there’d be any call to justice and when it came I didn’t see it coming. That was nicely done.… (more)
LibraryThing member woolgathering
This was the first Howard Norman novel I picked up, after chancing upon it at the library. I checked it out mainly for the title, as a bird-obsessed person myself, and ended up enjoying it far more than I expected to. Norman is criticized for writing sex scenes with the sophistication of teenage fumbling but these interactions have a vulnerability to them that I find appealing.

Also, his female characters are surprisingly more dynamic, developed, and engaging than his male characters, something I find rare in male authors. I subsequently read two other of his novels (The Museum Guard, and The Haunting of L) and found this to be true for the characters in those books as well. The only other male author I can think of immediately who creates such female characters is Haruki Murakami.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
Liked this quite well for the first half or so, but my interest waned about midway through and it didn't pick back up again, unfortunately.
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I decided to read this book because I read a New York Times article by the author. This book was also a National Book Award nominee. I found it interesting because he dealt with a place and time( Newfoundland in 1911) that is not something I read too much about. The book lets you know immediately that the lead character Fabian Vas had committed a murder. Although it took away the suspense, it did not impact the story. The characters were quirky and interesting. They reflected the harshness of life in that part of the world. It also reflected how things were changing for women through the character of Margaret. Although the book did lag a bit in the middle, ultimately it was a worthwhile read. I probably would not read any other books by Norman but I am glad I read this one. If someone is looking for a little history about that part of the world than I recommend "The Bird Artist".… (more)
LibraryThing member berylweidenbach
A quirky book about small town life in Newfoundland in the 1800's. The characters were vey real, and exactly that, characters!
The book starts out with a confession. The writer admits to killing the keeper of the lighthouse. The rest of the story is about what led up to that murder and why. Interesting relationships between the townspeople, and an example of how people alter their lives and dreams to "get along" with the people they are surrounded by. I liked it!… (more)




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