Review 2003: The Museum Guard

I have been a big fan so far of Howard Norman’s quirky novels. However, I had a slightly more mixed reaction to The Museum Guard.

DeFoe Russet has lived in the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax ever since his parents died in a freak Zeppelin accident when he was eight. As a boy, he was cared for by his uncle Edward, if you can call it that. Edward is an irresponsible, gambling, drinking womanizer with a lot of opinions.

DeFoe works as a museum guard in the small Glace Hotel, where his uncle also works when he bothers to show up. DeFoe is very much in love with Imogen Linny, the caretaker for the local Jewish cemetery. However, although they are lovers, Imogen is difficult and seems often to tolerate DeFoe.

DeFoe doesn’t seem to realize how stuck he is in his life. He has no plans except to continue working as a museum guard and to persist with Imogen. He is interested in listening to the tours of the museum given by Miss Dello, a local professor, and likes to think about the paintings.

Edward has been making himself obnoxious about DeFoe’s relationship with Imogen, whom DeFoe has kept from meeting Edward. But Imogen has recently become fascinated by a painting in the museum, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam by Joop Heijman. Then there is a fateful meeting between Imogen and Edward in the museum. Imogen essentially dumps DeFoe and begins spending a lot of time with Edward, who without permission lets her into the museum at night to be with the painting. Soon, the novel takes a bizarre turn as Imogen begins to believe she is the woman in the painting.

The novel is set mostly in 1938 and 1939 against the background of what is happening in Nazi Germany. DeFoe tells us on the first page that he steals the painting for Imogen, and the novel is about what causes him to do that and what happens afterwards.

I guess this novel is about stepping out of ordinary life. However, a lot of time is spent on DeFoe’s obsession with Imogen, maybe a bit too much, and the novel just gets weirder as it goes along. I’m not saying I disliked it, just that it wasn’t one of my favorites of Norman’s novels.

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Review 1998: The Glass Hotel

A woman, Vincent, falls into the sea at the beginning of The Glass Hotel. Then the narrative returns to the past, covering about 20 years in time.

As a young woman, Vincent works as a bartender in an expensive hotel in Caiette, a small, isolated village on Vancouver Island. One day a strange message is painted on one of the lobby windows. Vincent is sure that her brother Paul, also employed by the hotel, did it because of his behavior and because she pulled a similar prank in high school. However, she doesn’t discuss it with him because shortly thereafter she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, the wealthy owner of the hotel, and leaves with him.

To get away from Caiette, Vincent has become Alkaitis’s much younger trophy wife. At least, she is pretending to be his wife. They aren’t actually married. Although there are other plot lines in this novel, most of the action centers around the discovery that Alkaitis has been running a Ponzi scheme.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but Mandel doesn’t do much to make readers interested in them. In fact, I was struck about halfway through the novel when Alkaitis remarks that Vincent is interesting. There is very little dialogue in the novel, and frankly, Mandel hasn’t done much to show that she nor, really, anyone else is interesting.

Frankly, most of the characters in this novel are morally bankrupt. I was going to say excluding the investors, but actually they had to be either clueless or greedy, because most people would know the returns Alkaitis was paying were unlikely.

The last few pages of the book were really good, but do they make the rest worth reading? All I can say is I found the novel slow moving, and I kept putting it down. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t much like it, either.

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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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