Review 1866: The Bird Artist

The Bird Artist, I find, is listed as the first in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, of which The Haunting of L. is the third. I’m not sure I understand the grouping, since I have read several other books by Norman and they are all set in Canada, so far. However that may be, I continue to be charmed by his work even though it all seems to explore some dark places.

Fabian Vas is the narrator of the novel, and he tells us right off the bat that he has murdered someone. Then he goes on to describe his life in the remote village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, where he becomes a bird artist and boat fixer, beginning his story in 1911.

Two complicated sets of relationships affect Fabian’s future when he is a young man. One is that between Alaric, his mother, and Orkney, his father. The other is between himself and Margaret, his longtime friend and lover. Margaret is acerbic, and Fabian seems ambivalent. Alaric hates Margaret, so she talks Orkney into arranging a marriage for him with a cousin he has never met. It is this arrangement that kicks off a series of events ending in some fatalities.

That makes it sound like a dark novel, but it is not. In fact, it has a lightness to it, in tone, in its insights in its characters. It is about betrayal and guilt but also about redemption. Another fine novel from Norman.

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Review 1819: Dirty Birds

Just before I read Dirty Birds, I attempted to read Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, and I was surprised by the parallels. Both protagonists are on a quest to make a woman love them. Although Rushdie’s protagonist is old and Murray’s is young, both are naïve and deluded. Road trips are part of each novel, and so is satire—Rushdie’s for the cult of personality and big pharma, among other things, Murray’s for the Montreal art scene and the young man as artist. I found Murray’s book more successful and a lot funnier.

Milton Ontario is a hapless young man who is not only utterly average but characterized by the extent of his naiveté and inexperience. He gets an idea in his head that he wants to be a poet, even though he writes atrocious poetry (at first dedicated to the love of his life, Ashley, and later to the love of his life, Robin), so he sets out from his small town for Montreal and a tiny room he has rented sight unseen in a dilapidated, filthy house full of students and would-be artists. There he attempts to enter the art scene and falls in love with Robin, the maker of a seven-minute documentary entitled Dirty Birds, who is almost unaware of his existence.

Milton stumbles through a series of horrendous jobs horrendously performed and meets a cast of rowdy, raucous characters. He inadvertently starts a riot and gets to meet his hero, Leonard Cohen, only to find he is a mob boss (where I think the novel starts to go a bit astray). In among all this silly action is a series of footnotes enlightening us about the history of Canadian mistreatment of indigenous peoples, Newfies, and French-Canadians, among others.

Although I think it gets a little carried away with itself (and I didn’t like the part about the late, great Cohen), for the most part, this novel is a hoot.

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Review 1738: #1976 Club! Lady Oracle

My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.

When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.

Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.

As a naïve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.

By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.

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Review 1598: The Haunting of L.

In 1927, Peter Duvette accepts a job as a photographer’s assistant in Churchill, Manitoba. The day he reaches the remote town, he meets his boss, Vienna Linn, and Linn’s fianceé, Kala Murie. Kala is in the middle of a lecture about spirit photography, in which the spirit of the deceased person appears in photographs of family or friends. After the lecture, Linn and Murie are getting married.

So, Peter is surprised when that night he ends up in bed with the bride. It’s not too long before Kala tells him that Linn makes money by causing disasters that he photographs for a rich client. So far, these disasters have mostly been train wrecks.

Quirky isn’t exactly the word for this novel, because it is about a truly evil person. But it is certainly hard to predict where it will go. It’s eerie and atmospheric while still presenting a moving love story. This is the third book I’ve read by Howard Norman, and I’ve greatly enjoyed them all.

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Review 1583: The Northern Lights

I so much enjoyed Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective that I made a note to myself to read more by him. I finally chose The Northern Lights because of its setting.

In the 1950’s, Noah Krainik lives with his family on an isolated lake in northern Manitoba. His father Anthony is a geographer who is mapping the far reaches of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, so he leaves Noah, his mother Mina, and his cousin Charlotte alone for months at a time. He blames his work, but there are some events that don’t add up. For example, while out working he somehow ended up in Halifax and arranged for Charlotte to live with them after her parents were killed in a factory collapse. Halifax is a long way from either Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Every summer, beginning when he is nine, Noah takes the mail plane to Quill, 90 miles away, to live with his best friend Pelly and Pelly’s aunt and uncle, Nettie and Sam. There he experiences the richer life of a village of Cree Indians, trappers, and others who prefer this wilderness life that smacks of a much earlier time period. The novel begins, though, in 1959, when 14-year-old Noah learns of Pelly’s death.

This evocative novel explores the life in the wilderness and what happens when Anthony’s desertion provokes a move out of the wilderness to Toronto. There, Mina gets a job at the Northern Lights movie theater, where she first met Anthony.

This is a novel full of interesting, colorful characters, and I greatly enjoyed it. I especially liked the portion set in remote Manitoba.

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Review 1580: Barometer Rising

I got interested in the 1917 Halifax Explosion through my friend Naomi of Consumed by Ink. She has a page of books she’s read about the event, from which I selected this novel, written in 1941.

Penny Wain believes that her fiancé, Neil Macrae, died in action in France. She is aware there is more to it than that, but no one will tell her what it is, even her father, Colonel Wain, who was Neil’s commanding officer. But then, her father hated Neil. Penny has been working as a ship designer and has just had a design accepted by the Admiralty.

Penny has an admirer, Angus Murray, a doctor who is home on leave because of an injury. Angus is a lot older than Penny and is considered washed up because of his drinking, but Penny sees more in him.

What Penny does not know is that Neil is in Halifax. He was due to be courtmartialed for disobeying orders when the shed he was in was hit by artillery. He awakened with amnesia, having been mistaken for another soldier. Now, he is searching for a man he hopes will prove him innocent of the original charges.

This novel begins a few days before the cataclysmic event and ends a few days after. The description of the event itself, which caused an earthquake, a tidal wave, and an enormous wind, is impressive. Although I personally think Penny chose the wrong guy, I found this novel very interesting and involving.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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Review 1486: The Luminous Sea

On a bay in Newfoundland, Vivienne is collecting samples of sea life to study a phenomenon of luminescent tides, when she finds a creature. Although this creature is only suggestively described, we’re led to conclude that it’s a mermaid or a fish that led to the myth of mermaids.

Vivienne takes her find back to her boss, Colleen, who is thrilled. Colleen begins testing the creature to try to prove it is something heretofore undiscovered and notifies her own boss, Isaiah.

To Vivenne, the tests are too invasive, and the fish begins to lose its scales and seems to fail. When Isaiah brutally assaults her and Colleen angrily dismisses her complaint about it, Vivienne decides something must be done.

The Luminous Sea is narrated with luminous prose, leaving us with a book that is as beautiful as its cover (which, I admit, made me buy the book). This story about the balance between scientific discovery and humanity and about academic greed for recognition is really good.

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Review 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

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Review 1302: Crow Lake

Cover for Crow LakeBest of Ten!
Kate Morrison grew up in a farming community in far northern Ontario. She is reticent about her personal life, which frustrates the man in her life, Daniel Crane. Both are zoologists, and Kate can track her interest all the way back to the times she spent as a young girl watching insects and other wildlife in the ponds near her home with her older brother, Matt.

Kate finds it difficult to discuss her family, mostly because of her estrangement from that beloved brother. Crow Lake relates the events that led up to that estrangement from the time her parents died.

When Kate is seven, both her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. When their relatives plan to split up the four children, Luke, at 18 the oldest, decides to give up his scholarship to a teaching college to raise the two girls, Kate and Bo, aged one. He intends that Matt, the real intellect in the family, will go to the college the next year.

This sacrifice on Luke’s part makes Matt angry. Still, the biggest struggle is that the family get by at all, despite the help of the neighbors. Although their father had a good income, he gave most of his money away to struggling family members.

Aside from the troubles in the Morrison household, there are hints of tragic events at the neighboring Pye farm. These events will eventually affect the Morrisons in unexpected ways.

A visit back to the family to celebrate the birthday of Matt’s son, Simon, sends Kate’s thoughts repeatedly back to the events of her seventh and eighth years. In some ways, she is forced to face facts that she’s been avoiding.

Crow Lake is truly the kind of book that creates a world for its readers to explore. It is loaded with atmosphere and tension as Lawson explores the origins of family resentments and feelings pushed firmly below ground. This is a powerful book, completely absorbing. I was sorry for it to end.

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