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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!